An Overview of Tubular Carcinoma of the Breast

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Tubular carcinoma of the breast is a type of breast cancer. It is, in fact, a subtype of invasive ductal carcinoma (IDC), a cancer that starts inside a milk duct and expands into other parts of the breast. Tubular carcinomas take their name from their appearance; the cancer cells resemble small tubes when viewed under a microscope. These tumors are small and grow very slowly.

Tubular carcinomas account for 1% to 5% of all breast cancer diagnoses and the prognosis is often excellent.

Also Known As

Tubular carcinoma is also known as tubular breast cancer and, when present with lobular carcinoma, tubulolobular carcinoma (TLC).

Symptoms

Tubular carcinomas usually do not produce symptoms. Because of their size—typically less than 1 centimeter (cm) in diameter, or about the size of a pencil eraser)—they may not be felt during a breast self-exam. Most are found with routine medical exams, including mammograms

That said, a lump may grow large enough (and firm enough) over time that it can be felt during a self-check or physical examination by a doctor.

You may experience symptoms that are characteristic of all types of breast cancer, including:

  • Swelling in all or part of the breast
  • Skin irritation or dimpling (having the texture of an orange peel)
  • Breast or nipple pain
  • Nipple retraction where the nipple turns inward
  • Redness, scaling, or thickening of breast and/or nipple skin
  • Nipple discharge (other than breast milk)
  • A lump under the arm or around the collarbone

Causes

The exact cause of tubular carcinoma of the breast is unclear. Like other forms of breast cancer, several influences are likely at play.

A number of risk factors are associated with tubular carcinoma of the breast. These include:

  • Genetics and family history
  • Radiation of the chest or face (previous cancer treatment)
  • Being overweight
  • Having an unhealthy diet
  • Not breastfeeding
  • Hormone replacement therapy
  • Overuse of alcohol

People who develop tubular carcinoma are usually 50 years of age or older. Much like other breast cancers, tubular carcinoma of the breast is rare in men.

Diagnosis

Though, tubular carcinoma tumors are often very small, they may show up on a mammogram as irregularly shaped masses with spiky or star-like outlines. On a breast ultrasound, a tubular carcinoma can show up as a mass with a fuzzy outline, and it may have calcifications nearby.

The center of a tubular carcinoma will be denser than the outer areas of the mass. A biopsy is needed to obtain a tissue sample, which a pathologist will examine to confirm a diagnosis.

Your doctor will also conduct various other diagnostic tests to determine the specifics of the tumor, including its size, stage, hormone receptor status, and more.

Tubular carcinomas tend to be estrogen-receptor positive, HER2/neu-negative cancers. In some cases, tubular cancer cells are mixed with ductal or lobular cancer cells, giving a mixed-tumor diagnosis.

Treatment

There are several possible treatment options for tubular carcinoma. For most people, surgery is the only one necessary. However, this depends on the specifics of a tumor and where it has spread.

Surgery

Initially, either a lumpectomy (more common) or mastectomy may be done to remove tubular carcinomas.

A lumpectomy involves removal the part of the breast containing the tumor and its surrounding tissue. A mastectomy removes the whole breast.

Tubular carcinoma rarely spreads to the lymph nodes, but their removal may be done at the same time as a mastectomy if testing reveals that the nodes are affected.

Radiation Therapy

Radiation therapy is used after lumpectomy to treat the remaining breast tissue.

Drug Therapies

Tubular carcinomas are often estrogen-receptor positive, so hormonal therapy can be very effective in reducing the risk for recurrence. For premenopausal women, tamoxifen is often used. For postmenopausal women and premenopausal women who have had their ovaries removed or who have had ovarian suppression therapy, aromatase inhibitors are recommended. Treatment with these medications is recommended if the tumor is larger than 1 cm and/or if lymph nodes are positive.

Since these tumors are unlikely to spread to the lymph nodes, and hence to other regions of the body, it's less likely that adjuvant chemotherapy will be needed for these tumors. However, chemotherapy is usually recommended if more than one lymph node is positive.

Targeted therapy medications block the growth and spread of cancer by targeting and interfering with certain proteins and processes within cancer cells.

Prognosis

The five-year disease survival rate for tubular carcinoma is more than 90%, while the 10-year overall survival rate is similar to that of same-age people who have never had this type of cancer, according to a 2013 report in the Journal of Breast Cancer. The survival rate is higher when tubular carcinoma cells appear alone and not mixed with other types of breast cancer cells.

Furthermore, a report in the Journal of Clinical Oncology notes that the recurrence rate is less than 7%. If tubular carcinoma of the breast recurs, it may involve other types of IDCs, usually in the previously unaffected breast. Research is ongoing to make sense of these types of recurrences. 

Monitoring with mammograms and/or breast magnetic resonance imaging (MRIs) is important for detecting and treating recurrences early on.

A Word From Verywell

With tumors that are less common, such as tubular carcinomas, it can be helpful to get a second opinion at one of the larger cancer centers. Their staffs may include oncologists who have treated several people with this specific type of breast cancer.

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