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Ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS)

Read about what DCIS is, how it is diagnosed, and how it is treated.

What DCIS is

DCIS means that some cells in the lining of the ducts of the breast tissue have started to turn into cancer cells. These cells are all contained inside the ducts. They have not started to spread into the surrounding breast tissue.

Diagram showing ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS)

Doctors might describe DCIS in different ways. These include pre invasive, non invasive, ductal intraepithelial neoplasia (DIN) or intra ductal cancer.

In some people if DCIS is not treated, it could become an invasive cancer. DCIS and invasive breast cancer are not the same thing.

In invasive breast cancer, the cancer cells have broken out of the ducts and spread into the surrounding breast tissue. There is then a chance that the cells can spread into nearby lymph nodes or other parts of the body.

About DCIS

Around 6700 people are diagnosed with DCIS in the United Kingdom each year. This includes about 25 men.

Symptoms of DCIS

DCIS is diagnosed more often now than in the past. It is often picked up in women when they have mammograms as part of the UK breast screening programme. Men don't have a breast screening programme because DCIS and breast cancer are so rare in men. 

Many people don't have any symptoms when they are diagnosed. A small number of people have:

  • a lump in the breast
  • discharge from the nipple which might be blood stained

DCIS grade

The grade of DCIS tells you how much the cells look like normal breast cells. It gives your doctor an idea of how the DCIS might behave and which treatment you need.

DCIS grade is divided into:

  • low grade (more slowly growing)
  • intermediate grade
  • high grade (more quickly growing)

Doctors think that high grade DCIS is more likely to:

  • come back after treatment
  • spread into the surrounding breast tissue (become an invasive cancer)

Treatment for DCIS

Surgery is the main treatment for DCIS.

You might have surgery to remove:

  • an area of the breast (wide local excision)
  • the whole breast (mastectomy)

Your surgeon might recommend that you have a particular surgery or they might give you a choice of operations.

Women have different reasons for choosing a particular operation. For example, some women prefer to keep as much of their breast as possible. Other women prefer to have the whole breast removed because it makes them feel more confident that the DCIS is cured.

It is important to discuss your options with your doctor or nurse. 

Removal of part of the breast

Many women have surgery to remove the area of DCIS and a border of healthy tissue around it. This is called a wide local excision (WLE) or breast conserving surgery, or sometimes a lumpectomy.

After this surgery, you might have radiotherapy to the rest of the breast tissue if the DCIS cells look very abnormal (high grade). The radiotherapy treatment aims to kill off any abnormal cells that might still be in the breast tissue. Your doctor or breast care nurse will discuss with you the possible benefits and risks of radiotherapy.

Removal of the whole breast

You might have a mastectomy if:

  • the area of the DCIS is large
  • there are several areas of DCIS
  • you have small breasts and too much of the breast is affected by DCIS to make wide local excision possible

If you want to, you can choose to have a new breast made (breast reconstruction) at the time of the mastectomy, or some time afterwards.

Hormone therapy

Doctors are researching the role of tamoxifen and other hormone therapies as a treatment for DCIS. Trials have had mixed results.

Some trials suggest that taking tamoxifen after surgery for DCIS reduces the risk of it coming back (recurrence). And it can reduce the number of further invasive breast cancers or DCIS. But in these trials, the people taking tamoxifen did not live any longer that those who didn't take it.

Your doctor might suggest that you have tamoxifen if your DCIS cells have oestrogen receptors.

Follow up

After treatment you usually have regular check ups. At the check ups your doctor or a breast care nurse will examine you and ask about your general health. This is your chance to ask questions and to tell them if anything is worrying you.

How often you have check ups depends on your individual situation but they might go on for at least 5 years. This might include yearly mammograms. 

It’s important to remember that you can contact your doctor or nurse between appointments if you are worried about a symptom or have questions. You don't have to wait for your next appointment. You can also speak to your GP.

In some hospitals you don't have regular appointments after treatment. But if you have new symptoms or are worried about anything you can phone your doctor or breast care nurse or make an appointment to see them. 

UK guidelines say that everyone who has had treatment for early breast cancer should have a copy of a written care plan. The care plan has information about tests you will have, and signs and symptoms to look out for. It will also include contact details for specialist staff, such as your breast care nurse.

How likely is DCIS to come back

The chance of the DCIS coming back depends on various factors. But after mastectomy DCIS almost never comes back. In women who have just the area of DCIS removed the chance of it coming back is a bit higher. But it depends on the grade and type of DCIS. Your doctor can give you more information about the chance of the DCIS coming back in your case.

Trials and research

Trials are looking at the possible causes of DCIS: for example, particular genetic changes that might increase the risk of developing it.

Researchers are also trying to find out whether peole with low or intermediate risk DCIS need to have treatment.

Doctors would like to improve existing treatments as well as reduce the side effects. For example, one trial is trying to find out whether internal radiotherapy (brachytherapy) is as good as external radiotherapy for DCIS.

Last reviewed: 
17 Oct 2017
  • Cancer Research UK statistics
    Accessed October 2017

  • Early and locally advanced breast cancer: diagnosis and treatment
    National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, 2009 (updated March 2017)

  • Adjuvant therapy in patients with ductal carcinoma in situ of the breast: The Pandora's box
    M Lazzeroni and others
    Cancer Treatment Reviews, 2017, Apr;55: pages 1-9

  • Management of Ductal Carcinoma In Situ of the Breast: A Review
    C Shah and others
    Journal of the American Medical Association ( Oncology), 2016, Aug 1;2(8): pages 1083-8

  • Sentinel node biopsy in ductal carcinoma in situ of the breast: Never justified?
    L Sorrentino and others
    The Breast,  2017, Oct 11

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