Metastatic Breast Cancer
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Metastatic breast cancer occurs when cancer cells spread to another part of the body. Breast cancer can be metastatic at the time of diagnosis, or following treatment. Cancer cells can travel through the bloodstream and spread to other organs and parts of the body.
The most common sites of metastases are the breast or area where the breast used to be, the chest wall, the lymph nodes, the bones, the lungs or around the lungs, the liver or the brain. If you have been treated for breast cancer and now have cancer cells in any of these areas, it is most likely breast cancer that has spread.
Metastatic breast cancer is different to recurrent breast cancer. Recurrent breast cancer is cancer that returns to the same part of the same breast after treatment, rather than to other parts of the body. When cancer develops in the second breast, it is almost always a new cancer, not a recurrence.
Metastatic Breast Cancer Risk Factors
Anyone can get metastatic breast cancer. Factors that may increase risk include:
- Gender: Women are at greater risk than men for developing metastatic breast cancer.
- Lymph node involvement: Among women with cancer in their lymph nodes during their first diagnosis, 30–60% eventually get metastatic disease.
- Number of positive lymph nodes: Having several lymph nodes that contain cancer cells at the time of first diagnosis is associated with a greater risk of eventually developing metastatic disease.
- Tumor size: Larger tumor size when cancer was first diagnosed is associated with a greater risk of metastatic disease
Metastatic Breast Cancer Symptoms
Metastatic breast cancer symptoms depend on the part of the body to which the cancer has spread. Sometimes, metastatic disease may not cause any symptoms.
- If the breast or chest wall is affected, symptoms may include pain, nipple discharge, or a lump or thickening in the breast or underarm.
- If the bones are affected, symptoms may include pain, fractures, constipation or decreased alertness due to high calcium levels.
- If the lungs are affected, symptoms may include shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, coughing, chest wall pain or extreme fatigue.
- If the liver is affected, symptoms may include nausea, extreme fatigue, increased abdominal girth, swelling of the feet and hands due to fluid collection and yellowing or itchy skin.
- If the brain or spinal cord are affected, symptoms may include pain, confusion, memory loss, headache, blurred or double vision, difficulty with speech, difficulty with movement or seizures.
Metastatic Breast Cancer Treatment
Metastatic breast cancer is treatable. Although it is often considered a chronic disease that does not disappear, it can be put into long-term remission, leaving you cancer-free for many years. Today, women who are diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer have a much better prognosis than in the past. Certain factors may increase the chance of metastatic disease responding to treatment, including:
- Extent of spread: The cancer has not spread to any organs, including the liver, lungs or brain
- Number of sites: The cancer has not spread to more than three sites
- Receptor status: Cancer cells are positive for estrogen and progesterone receptors
- Treatment resistance: The tumor has not become resistant to hormonal therapy or chemotherapy
- Previous therapy: Only a few different drugs or rounds of treatment have been given
Numerous metastatic breast cancer treatment options are available, and new drugs are constantly being investigated in clinical trials. Your doctor will work with you to discuss options and create a treatment plan that is right for you.