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Sporadic breast cancer develops through the accumulation of molecular abnormalities in normal breast tissue, resulting from exposure to estrogens and other carcinogens beginning at adolescence and continuing throughout life. These molecular changes may take a variety of forms, including numerical and structural chromosomal abnormalities, epigenetic changes, and gene expression alterations. To characterize these abnormalities, a review of the literature has been conducted to define the molecular changes in each of the above major genomic categories in normal breast tissue considered to be either at normal risk or at high risk for sporadic breast cancer. This review indicates that normal risk breast tissues (such as reduction mammoplasty) contain evidence of early breast carcinogenesis including loss of heterozygosity, DNA methylation of tumor suppressor and other genes, and telomere shortening. In normal tissues at high risk for breast cancer (such as normal breast tissue adjacent to breast cancer or the contralateral breast), these changes persist, and are increased and accompanied by aneuploidy, increased genomic instability, a wide range of gene expression differences, development of large cancerized fields, and increased proliferation. These changes are consistent with early and long-standing exposure to carcinogens, especially estrogens. A model for the breast carcinogenic pathway in normal risk and high-risk breast tissues is proposed. These findings should clarify our understanding of breast carcinogenesis in normal breast tissue and promote development of improved methods for risk assessment and breast cancer prevention in women.
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