A breast cancer diagnosis can be scary. A lot of things are likely to happen in rapid succession once a diagnosis is made.

For example, soon after a diagnosis is made, your doctor will want to conduct several tests to learn more information about the type of breast cancer you have. They’ll also test to determine the cancer’s size and whether it has spread to nearby lymph nodes or other organs and tissues.

This information will help your doctor determine the cancer’s stage. The stage of a cancerous tumor can tell doctors how advanced the cancer is. It can also tell your care team how the cancer might respond to treatment — and even how quickly it may be growing.

Other tests doctors use to determine treatment options include:

  • biomarkers that indicate whether the cancer is resistant to treatment or more likely to respond to treatment
  • hormone receptor and HER2 status which provides information about the effectiveness of hormone therapy
  • gene expression tests can help doctors make decisions about treatment following breast surgery

If you’re trying to understand what tumor size has to do with breast cancer staging, keep reading. In this article, you can read about breast cancer tumor sizes, as well as how tumor sizes affect treatment and growth rate.

The Growth Rates and Tumor sizes of Breast Cancer

How does tumor size and location influence the staging of breast cancer?

Finding a breast cancer’s stage is a multi-step process. The tumor’s size and location help healthcare professionals determine the cancer’s stage. Other factors are considered, too.

Tumor stage

Healthcare professionals use the TNM System to understand a tumor’s stage.

  • T = tumor  This tells you the size and location of the tumor.
  • N = lymph nodes  This tells you if the cancer has spread to any lymph nodes and how many are affected.
  • M = metastasis  This indicates the cancer has spread to other parts of the body.

Tumor size

Breast cancer tumors are divided into five categories based on size:

  • T0: This size of tumor is considered noninvasive. It’s very small and hasn’t spread.
  • T1: This tumor is less than 2 centimeters (3/4 inch). It may or may not have spread to nearby lymph nodes.
  • T2: This tumor is slightly larger, between 2 and 5 centimeters. Some stage 2 tumors are larger but haven’t spread to the lymph nodes. Others may be small but have spread to nearby lymph nodes.
  • T3: Tumor is greater than 5 cm.
  • T4: Tumor of any size with invasion into the chest wall or skin.

Advanced-stage vs. early-stage

A cancer tumor that has spread to nearby lymph nodes, and has metastasized beyond the breast tissue is an advanced-stage cancer.

Early-stage cancer includes disease that may have spread to the lymph nodes but hasn’t spread to distant parts of the body (like the brain, liver, lungs, or bone).

How does tumor size and location affect treatment?

It’s important for your doctor and entire healthcare team to know the cancer’s stage in order to plan treatment. Treatment for breast cancer takes into account the tumor’s size, location, and spread, if there is any.

For example, cancers that are considered early stage may be treated with localized treatments, like surgery and radiation. This cancer may have a better prognosis.

For advanced-stage cancers, a doctor may use systemic treatments. These include chemotherapy, hormone therapy, targeted therapy, and more. Radiation may also be used for advanced-stage cancer, but other treatments will likely be used in conjunction.

How quickly do breast cancer tumors grow?

Breast cancer cells are mutated cells — they don’t grow the way healthy cells do. Instead, they grow at different rates than other cells in the body. Different types of cancers also grow at different rates. That makes predicting how quickly a breast cancer tumor will grow difficult.

Most breast cancer tumors have been growing for several years before they’re found. The cells will need to divide as many as 30 times before the tumor is detectable. With each division taking 1 to 2 months, a tumor could be growing 2 to 5 years before it’s found.

But there are things a healthcare professional can do to determine if the cancerous tumor is growing quickly. Some tumor gradings will include information that indicates how likely the tumor is to grow and spread.

This information is usually gathered with a biopsy. In this medical procedure, a professional will remove a tissue sample from the affected area. That tissue will be sent to a lab where a specialist will review it.

Cancerous cells that are highly aggressive will look very different from normal, healthy cells. The greater the difference between the two types of cells, the higher the chances the cancer is aggressive. But cancer cells that look more like the other cells may be less aggressive.

If the biopsy suggests the cancer is likely to spread, you’ll be monitored closely for metastases. Cancer cells can spread via the lymph system, bloodstream, or directly into nearby tissues and organs.

Factors influencing how quickly breast cancer tumors grow

Several factors may influence how quickly breast cancer tumors grow. These factors include:

  • Your age. People under 40 are likely to have more aggressive breast cancer.
  • Menopause status. If you haven’t completed menopause, the hormones of menstruation may impact cancer growth.
  • History of breast cancer. A family or personal history of this cancer may increase the risk of an aggressive type.
  • The type of breast cancer. Some types are more aggressive than others.
  • Hormone treatment. If you had hormone replacement therapy (HRT) with menopause, the chances of an aggressive form of cancer are higher.

Takeaway

Breast cancer can grow for years without a noticeable lump or bump in your breast tissue. A regular mammogram may detect the tumor before you can manually.

The earlier a breast cancer tumor is caught, the better the chances of a positive outcome. Treatments are typically more successful with early-stage cancers. If you can find the cancer before it has spread, you can reduce your risk of advanced cancer and metastases.

Frequently Asked Questions

Studies show that even though breast cancer happens more often now than it did in the past, it doesn’t grow any faster than it did decades ago. On average, breast cancers double in size every 180 days, or about every 6 months.
In another study, in the American Journal of Roentgenology following 490 diagnosed breast cancer patients from 2016 to 2017, the average tumor size upon diagnosis of cancer was 1.4 cm for women who had annual mammograms and 1.8 cm for women who had exams only once every two years.
Tumor size is strongly related to prognosis (chances for survival). In general, the smaller the tumor, the better the prognosis tends to be [12]. Tumor size is part of breast cancer staging. In the TNM staging system, a “T” followed by a number shows the size of the tumor.
A long-held belief by a number of patients and even some physicians has been that a biopsy can cause some cancer cells to spread. While there have been a few case reports that suggest this can happen — but very rarely — there is no need for patients to be concerned about biopsies, says Dr. Wallace.
Primary breast tumors vary in shape and size. The smallest lesion that can be felt by hand is typically 1.5 to 2 centimeters (about 1/2 to 3/4 inch) in diameter. Sometimes tumors that are 5 centimeters (about 2 inches) — or even larger — can be found in the breast.
Research suggests that estrogen receptor-positive breast cancer is more likely to come back more than five years after diagnosis. In this study, the researchers looked at the risk of late breast cancer recurrence, meaning the breast cancer came back 10 or more years after diagnosis.
T1 (includes T1a, T1b, and T1c): Tumor is 2 cm (3/4 of an inch) or less across. T2: Tumor is more than 2 cm but not more than 5 cm (2 inches) across. T3: Tumor is more than 5 cm across. T4 (includes T4a, T4b, T4c, and T4d): Tumor of any size growing into the chest wall or skin.
Myth 6: A Small Lump Is Less Likely to Be Cancer Than a Large Lump. Breast lumps come in all sizes, and size doesn’t affect the odds that it’s cancer, says Melissa Scheer, MD, a breast-imaging specialist at Manhattan Diagnostic Radiology in New York.
Around 95 out of every 100 women (around 95%) survive their cancer for 1 year or more after diagnosis. Around 85 out of every 100 women (around 85%) will survive their cancer for 5 years or more after diagnosis. Around 75 out of every 100 women (around 75%) will survive their cancer for 10 years or more after diagnosis.
Breast cancer lumps can vary in size. Typically, a lump has to be about one centimeter (about the size of a large lima bean) before a person can feel it; however, it depends on where the lump arises in the breast, how big the breast is, and how deep the lesion is.
Among women aged 40 to 49 years, 20% of the biopsy findings showed breast cancer (invasive and ductal carcinoma in situ), as did 32% for women 50 to 59 years old and 42% for women 60 years and older.
Doctors use diagnostic tests like biopsies and imaging exams to determine a cancer’s grade and its stage. While grading and staging help doctors and patients understand how serious a cancer is and form a treatment plan, they measure two different aspects of the disease.
If you have a biopsy resulting in a cancer diagnosis, the pathology report will help you and your doctor talk about the next steps. You will likely be referred to a breast cancer specialist, and you may need more scans, lab tests, or surgery.
Inflammatory breast cancer, which may be detected in the ducts or lobules, tends to spread faster than other types of breast cancer. This quick-growing, aggressive disease makes up about 1 to 5 percent of breast cancers in the United States, according to the NCI.
Triple-negative breast cancer (TNBC) is considered an aggressive cancer because it grows quickly, is more likely to have spread at the time it’s found, and is more likely to come back after treatment than other types of breast cancer.
High grade (grade 3) the cells look very different to normal breast cells and are faster growing, these are poorly differentiated cancers that have abnormal features. They tend to grow and spread more quickly and have a worse outlook (prognosis).
Typically, if you have early-stage breast cancer, you’ll undergo chemotherapy treatments for three to six months, but your doctor will adjust the timing to your circumstances. If you have advanced breast cancer, treatment may continue beyond six months.
A breast ultrasound is most often done to find out if a problem found by a mammogram or physical exam of the breast may be a cyst filled with fluid or a solid tumor. Breast ultrasound is not usually done to screen for breast cancer. This is because it may miss some early signs of cancer.
Stage 1 is highly treatable, however, it does require treatment, typically surgery and often radiation, or a combination of the two. Additionally, you may consider hormone therapy, depending on the type of cancer cells found and your additional risk factors.
Is breast cancer fatal? People with early-stage breast cancer often manage their condition successfully with treatment. In fact, many people who’ve received a breast cancer diagnosis go on to live long, fulfilling lives. Late-stage breast cancer is more difficult to treat, however, and can be fatal.
A painless, hard mass that has irregular edges is more likely to be cancer, but breast cancers can be also soft, round, tender, or even painful. Other possible symptoms of breast cancer include: Swelling of all or part of a breast (even if no lump is felt) Skin dimpling (sometimes looking like an orange peel).
Breast cancer mainly occurs in middle-aged and older women. The median age at the time of breast cancer diagnosis is 62. This means half of the women who developed breast cancer are 62 years of age or younger when they are diagnosed. A very small number of women diagnosed with breast cancer are younger than 45.