Key Points about Papillary Breast Cancer

  • Papillary breast cancer is a rare type of breast cancer that is invasive and begins in a breast duct.
  • This type of cancer is often more treatable than other types of invasive breast cancer.
  • Doctors use biopsy, imaging tests, bone tests and physical exam to diagnose papillary breast cancer.
  • Treatment for papillary breast cancer may include surgery, chemotherapy, hormone therapy, bisphosphonates and/or radiation therapy.


Breast cancer is cancer that begins in the breast tissue. Papillary breast cancer is a rare type of invasive ductal breast cancer, or invasive ductal carcinoma (IDC). Invasive cancer refers to cancerous cells that have spread beyond the original site of the cancer, which is the breast duct in this case. Papillary breast cancer cases account for less than 1 percent of all breast cancer cases.

When compared to more common types of breast cancer, this type of breast cancer less often involves the lymph nodes and is generally more responsive to treatment. Compared to more common types of invasive breast cancer, those with papillary breast cancer may have better outcomes.

Papillary breast cancer causes

Breast cancer is caused by mutations (changes) to the DNA of the cells of the breast. Papillary breast cancer occurs when mutations develop in the cells of the breast ducts.

Papillary breast cancer risk factors

The following factors may increase your risk for developing papillary breast cancer:

  • Being African-American
  • Being female
  • Being over age 60
  • Being post-menopausal

Papillary breast cancer symptoms

In many cases, papillary breast cancer does not cause any signs or symptoms. When they do occur, signs and symptoms of papillary breast cancer can include:

  • A lump in the breast felt with the fingers
  • Discharge from the nipple
  • Tenderness in the breast

Papillary breast cancer diagnosis

Your oncologist may use one or more of the following tests to diagnose this condition:

  • Physical exam – your doctor will perform a complete physical exam, including asking questions about your health history, symptoms and related risk factors.
  • Computerized tomography (CT) scan – this type of imaging test provides a 3-D image of the inside of the body that your doctor can use to determine if there is any cancer present.
  • Bone scan – your oncologist may order a bone scan if he or she suspects that the cancer may have spread to your bones.
  • Biopsy – in this test, your doctor removes a biopsy (small tissue sample) from the suspicious area. This sample is sent to the laboratory, where a specialist closely checks the biopsy for abnormalities.
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) – this type of imaging test uses high-powered magnets to create detailed images of the inside of your body. Your doctor can closely examine these images to look for any areas that could indicate cancer.

Papillary breast cancer treatment

Depending on your personal health history, the extent of your papillary breast cancer and other factors, your oncologist may recommend one or more of the following treatment options:

  • Surgery – in most cases, your doctor will recommend a surgical procedure to remove the cancerous area. Types of surgery include lumpectomy (removal of the cancerous cells and a margin of healthy tissue) and mastectomy (removal of an entire breast). Your surgeon will work to preserve as much surrounding healthy tissue as possible. In some cases, you may opt to undergo reconstructive surgery following surgery to treat breast cancer.
  • Bisphosphonates – your doctor may prescribe bone-strengthening medications to help prevent cancer cells from spreading.
  • Chemotherapy – you may need to undergo chemotherapy to destroy any microscopic cancerous cells that may not have been removed surgically. During this treatment, medication is used to destroy cancerous cells. Chemotherapy can be taken via an oral (by mouth) pill or intravenously (through a vein).
  • Hormone therapy – if you have hormone receptor-positive breast cancer, your oncologist may recommend you undergo hormone therapy for the hormones estrogen and progesterone.
  • Radiation therapy – this treatment uses high-powered energy beams to destroy cancerous cells. You may need to undergo radiation therapy to destroy any cancerous cells that couldn’t be removed surgically.

When should I seek care?

If you experience any of these symptoms, start by voicing your concerns and symptoms to your primary care provider. From there, your doctor may suggest seeing an oncologist for more specialized treatment.

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