When cancer spreads from its initial location to another part of the body, it is called metastatic cancer. This means that breast cancer that has spread or metastasized beyond the breast is called metastatic breast cancer. Metastatic breast cancer, also called stage 4 breast cancer, can begin to grow in any area of the body. However, the bones, liver, lungs, and brain are most commonly affected. Learn more about the stages of breast cancer.
A metastatic breast cancer diagnosis shouldn’t cause you to feel hopeless. Many treatment options are available, and continued advancements allow patients to live longer and fuller lives. Even though there is no cure for metastatic breast cancer, you can manage it with the right treatment plan.
What Causes Breast Cancer to Metastasize?
Breast cancer metastasis can happen for many reasons. Usually, it’s because some cancer cells were left behind after initial breast cancer treatment was complete for a previously diagnosed and treated breast cancer. These surviving cancer cells can go dormant or hide, making them undetectable until they one day begin to grow and spread again.
Patients whose breast cancer has already spread at the time of their initial diagnosis have what is referred to as “de novo” metastatic breast cancer.
When breast cancer spreads to another area of the body, such as the bones, it is still treated as breast cancer. That’s because they are breast cancer cells in the distant area of the body rather than bone cancer cells. The patient will receive drugs and other therapies that are intended for treating breast cancer.
Very few patients develop a second, completely different type of cancer after breast cancer.
How Do You Know if Breast Cancer Has Spread to Other Areas of the Body?
Sometimes, Breast Cancer Metastasis Will Cause Symptoms
Some common symptoms associated with metastatic breast cancer are usually related to where the cancer has spread and how much it has grown. If you experience any of the symptoms listed below, talk to your cancer care team so you can receive the treatment you need.
General signs of breast cancer growth can include:
- Sudden weight loss without trying to lose weight.
- Vomiting but without being sick with a virus or food-borne illness
- Fatigue, or suddenly feeling very tired without a good reason
More specific symptoms that are related to the areas where the cancer has spread include:
- Pain in the bones, back, neck, or joints, bone fractures, or swelling is common with bone metastasis.
- Headaches, nausea, seizures, dizziness, confusion, vision changes, changes in personality, or loss of balance can be experienced with brain metastasis.
- Shortness of breath, difficulty breathing, or a constant dry cough could be a sign that breast cancer has developed in the lungs. A chest x-ray can usually show if there is a growth there.
- Yellowing of the skin or whites of the eyes, itchy skin, pain or swelling in the stomach, loss of appetite, or nausea are associated with cancer metastasizing to the liver. You might also have a high liver enzyme test result.
If any of these are noticed, your oncologist will recommend more thorough testing in order to make an official diagnosis.
There Can Also Be Breast Cancer Metastasis Without Symptoms
Scheduled follow-up visits with your breast cancer specialist will include blood work that looks for “tumor markers.” An increase in numbers is a sign that cancer is growing again somewhere in the body, but more tests will be needed to identify the exact location.
This might include a PET scan, an MRI, or other imaging tests that will look at the whole body. The more your oncologist knows about any symptoms you’re experiencing, the easier it is to determine where to look first.
Metastatic Breast Cancer Treatment Options
Metastatic breast cancer patients have several treatment options to choose from. These treatments are often referred to as systemic therapies because they treat cancer throughout the entire body. Several of these therapies have been recently approved specifically for stage 4 breast cancer patients whose cancer has returned.
After your case is evaluated, the oncologist will work with the rest of the cancer care team to develop a plan of action. The goal is to tailor this plan in a way that meets your individual needs and provides the best outcome. In the video below, WVCI medical oncologist and breast cancer specialist Dr. Miho Teruya Dougherty discusses the latest in metastatic breast cancer treatment.
Treatment Options for Metastatic Breast Cancer May Include:
- Chemotherapy attacks the metastasized breast cancer cells that are located throughout the body.
- Hormone therapy can be used to block the hormone receptors on the breast cancer cells if breast cancer is hormone-positive.
- Targeted therapies to stop cancer cell growth by “targeting” their specific characteristics. There are genomic tests that can be performed to see if there are specific gene mutations that can be targeted with a drug intended for metastatic breast cancer.
- Immunotherapy to trigger the immune system to recognize and attack cancer cells. Currently, immunotherapy for breast cancer is primarily a checkpoint inhibitor. Extensive research is underway for additional uses of immunotherapies for breast cancer.
- Radiation therapy for metastatic breast cancer will depend on how much radiation therapy was used in the initial treatment process. For some patients, it’s used to shrink tumors not in the chest area that were previously treated to reduce pain from the tumor.
There are several clinical research trials for metastatic breast cancer currently running. Your oncologist may discuss the option of participating so you can access the latest advancements in treatments for this type of cancer.
Before beginning treatment, it’s important to take the time to discuss what to expect from each type of recommended treatment with your breast cancer doctor. Remember that your cancer care team is there to help you make good decisions about your treatment, so don’t be afraid to ask questions so you can understand as much as possible.
Questions to Ask Your Oncologist About a Metastatic Breast Cancer Diagnosis
Maintaining open communication with your cancer care team is a good way to feel in control after your metastatic breast cancer diagnosis. It’s likely you have learned a few things along the way during your first round of treatment, but this situation is different. Be sure to ask questions that can help you better understand your specific diagnosis and what to expect regarding treatment. The more you know, the more empowered you can be when it comes to making informed decisions about your care.
As you consider your options, you might want to ask your breast cancer doctor some of these questions:
- Based on the location of my cancer, what kind of prognosis can I expect? Can it be improved in any way?
- What tests are needed before you can create a treatment plan?
- What are the goals of the recommended treatment(s)?
- Will another surgery be necessary?
- Is there a clinical trial I’m eligible for?
- What are the risks and side effects associated with my treatment plan?
- How long until I need to make a decision about treatment?
- How do you know if the treatment is working? What happens if it doesn’t?
- Should I get a second opinion?
Keeping a notebook is an effective way to ensure you get all the information you need. Be sure to write down any questions and bring them to each appointment so you can take notes. It also helps to bring a friend or family member along for support.
Take Care of Yourself While Living with Metastatic Breast Cancer
Living with metastatic breast cancer means keeping up with cancer treatments — but that doesn’t mean you have to neglect your other physical and emotional needs. Be sure to talk with your cancer care team about maintaining self-care. They can provide you with helpful resources, including information on nutrition and exercise, stress management, support groups, approved complementary therapies that can help improve your quality of life, and more.
Metastatic Breast Cancer Care Available in Willamette Valley
The breast cancer doctors at Willamette Valley Cancer Institute offer the latest in breast cancer treatment and are here to provide you with an individualized treatment plan. If you are diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer, make an appointment with one of our oncologists at a location convenient to you in Albany, Corvallis, Eugene, Florence, Lincoln City, or Newport, Oregon.