Metastatic breast cancer refers to breast cancer that has spread to other parts of the body.
Breast cancer can also become metastatic if it was already advanced by the time a person received a diagnosis, for example, because the cancer was aggressive or caused no noticeable symptoms.
Cancer spreads when cancerous cells grow and move beyond their original location. They start to affect the lymph glands, bloodstream, and various organs. Changes commonly begin in the lungs, brain, liver, and bones.
When breast cancer has spread beyond the region of the body where it originated, 27% of people commonly live for at least another 5 years, according to the American Cancer Society.
Symptoms of metastatic breast cancer depend on the organs that the cancer has started to affect. It often spreads to the brain, bone, lungs, or liver.
Depending on the affected area of the brain, metastatic breast cancer can cause:
- changes in behavior
- disturbed vision
If cancer spreads to the bones, it can cause:
- an increased chance of fractures
- decreased mobility
- spinal cord compression
- severe pain
If cancer spreads to the lungs, it often shows no symptoms, but it can cause:
- shortness of breath
- chest pain
- coughing up blood
If cancer spreads to the liver, it can cause:
- yellowing of the skin
- a loss of appetite
- itchy skin or a rash
- vomiting and nausea
Other general symptoms of metastatic breast cancer can include:
- a loss of appetite
- weight loss
These symptoms may arise from the condition, from depression associated with the condition, or as side effects of medication.
Learning to recognize these symptoms and getting a diagnosis early on can ensure that a person receives the right treatment promptly. This can improve both the quality and length of a person’s life.
There are several ways to treat metastatic breast cancer. Options depend on the type of breast cancer, including whether hormonal factors play a role.
Some treatments, such as chemotherapy, can stop the cancer from spreading further. Other options involve palliative care, which aims to help a person feel more comfortable and otherwise improve the quality of life.
Treatments that aim to stop or slow cancer’s progression include:
Hormone therapy: This can help if breast cancer involves certain hormonal features.
Targeted therapy: This can affect the way that changes in specific genes, such as BRCA1 or BRCA2, affect the growth of cancer cells.
Chemotherapy: This aims to kill cancerous cells throughout the body.
Radiation therapy: This can reduce the size of tumors and help relieve symptoms.
Surgery: This is not usually an option for metastatic breast cancer, but it may be appropriate in some cases.
Other options include:
- bone strengthening therapy, which can help keep the bones strong
- pain relief medication
- treatment to help with other effects of cancer, such as anxiety and depression
All of these treatments can have adverse effects, such as nausea and fatigue.
A doctor can often suggest ways to limit the impact of symptoms and side effects of medication. Anyone experiencing severe discomfort or concerns should speak to a doctor.
If a person has primary cancer, which refers to cancer that has not spread, they will stop treatment when the cancer cells are gone. When cancer is metastatic, however, treatment will be ongoing.
However, at some point, a person may decide to stop treatment or only have palliative care, which focuses on improving comfort levels. A person often makes this decision after talking to their doctor, their family, and other loved ones.
Proton therapy is an emerging treatment for cancer. Learn more here.
When it is no longer possible to stop the cancer from spreading, doctors offer treatment that helps a person continue their life in relative comfort.
Palliative care includes:
- medications to reduce pain and discomfort
- physical therapy
- treatment for any anxiety or depression
- counseling to help with personal, social, and spiritual concerns
Many people benefit from a combination of these forms of care.
In addition, complementary treatments may help, including:
A person may require hospice care, either in a special facility or at home. Hospice care aims to help the person live as comfortably as possible.
What does a person experience during end-stage breast cancer? Learn more here.
Living with advanced-stage cancer can be difficult for the individual, their family, and their friends. The American Cancer Society recommend the following strategies for coping:
- Learn as much as you can about the condition and what to expect.
- Understand that it is not possible to control every aspect of cancer.
- Learn ways to let go of feelings and fears, for example, by talking about them.
- Make time for important things, such as spending time with loved ones.
- Eat healthfully and exercise when you can.
- Find ways to relax and do things that bring pleasure.
- Participate in support groups as much as possible.
Monitoring, or follow-up care, is extremely important. It allows a doctor to check whether the cancer has spread further. It can also help with managing side effects and assessing overall health.
The doctor will ask about symptoms and general well-being. They may perform a physical examination, and they will likely check measures of the person’s overall health.
The doctor may recommend further scans and blood tests. Depending on the results, they may adjust the treatment plan.
A person should inform their doctor right away about any new health problems.
The outlook depends on the type of breast cancer, the extent of the spread, and how the cancer is affecting these areas.
Based on past statistics, the average life expectancy for a person with metastatic breast cancer is 18–24 months. However, this can vary widely. In addition, past statistics do not reflect more recent advances in treatment.
As the American Cancer Society notes, more than 1 in 4 people with this diagnosis will live another 5 years or more.
Many people with metastatic breast cancer live long and productive lives, and treatment can often control the cancer.
Survival rates vary, depending on the individual. Speak to the doctor to get a better understanding of specific circumstances.
Is metastatic breast cancer the same as end-stage breast cancer?
Metastatic breast cancer means that the cancer has spread to other organs in the body. Some women live with metastatic breast cancer for many years.
However, when a woman reaches a point at which treatments have stopped working to control cancer growth, this marks end-stage breast cancer. The goal of treatment then shifts from controlling or stopping cancer to comfort care (or palliative care) to relieve symptoms caused by advanced cancer.
Christina Chun, MPH Answers represent the opinions of our medical experts. All content is strictly informational and should not be considered medical advice.