*This slide show represents a visual interpretation and is not intended to provide, nor substitute as, medical and/or clinical advice.
What is metastatic breast cancer?
When breast cancer spreads to other parts of the body, such as the bones, liver, lungs, or brain, it is called metastatic breast cancer. It is also called advanced, secondary, or stage 4 breast cancer.
How serious is metastatic breast cancer?
Metastatic breast cancer is a life-threatening disease that cannot be cured.
About 4 in 10 people with metastatic breast cancer are alive 5 years after diagnosis, compared to 9 in 10 with Stage 1 to 3 breast cancer.
Who is at risk for metastatic breast cancer?
Some people have metastatic breast cancer when they are first diagnosed with breast cancer.
About 30% of women who previously had treatment for early stage breast cancer will develop metastatic breast cancer.
Symptoms of metastatic breast cancer
Symptoms of metastatic breast cancer may include tiredness and a poor appetite.
You might have specific symptoms depending on where the cancer spreads.
Symptoms of metastatic breast cancer
Signs cancer might have spread to the lymph nodes are:
A lump under your arm or in your breast.
Signs of spreading to the bones are:
Pain or broken bones.
Signs of spreading to the liver are:
Abdominal pain or swelling and
Itchy or yellowish skin, called jaundice.
Signs of spreading to the lungs are:
Shortness of breath, and
A cough that doesn’t go away, with or without blood.
Signs of spreading to the brain are:
Weakness or numbness in the arms and legs
Vision problems, and
Changes in personality or behavior.
Symptoms of metastatic breast cancer
Anyone can have these types of symptoms for other reasons. If you have them for more than a few weeks, or you or your primary doctor feel worried, contact your oncologist for advice.
Goals of metastatic breast cancer treatment
Treatment for metastatic breast cancer can help reduce symptoms, make you feel better and sometimes, help you live longer. However, it will not cure the cancer.
Treatment options for metastatic breast cancer
Treatment depends on:
The tumor type, size and where it is located,
The treatments you already received,
Your general health,
If you are in menopause and what stage, and
If the cancer is growing slowly or quickly.
How to decide on metastatic breast cancer treatment
To decide about treatment, you need to understand:
The potential benefits,
Its side effects, and
How it might affect your life in general – Doctors call this your “quality of life.”
Treatment for metastatic breast cancer
The main treatment for metastatic breast cancer is called “systemic therapy.” This is treatment that affects your whole body, such as hormone therapy, chemotherapy, or targeted therapy.
“Local therapy,” is treatment for specific areas of your body with surgery or radiation.
You might have both local and systemic therapy.
Hormone therapy for metastatic breast cancer
Hormone therapies are given if your tumor responds to the hormones estrogen and progesterone. Tumors that respond are often called estrogen- or progesterone-receptor positive. These hormones allow the cancer to grow, but hormone therapies block their growth. They can help shrink or slow the spread of metastatic breast cancers.
Hormone therapy is also given with earlier stage breast cancer to lower the risk of cancer coming back.
If you have metastatic breast cancer, you can take hormone therapy as long as you need to control the growth of the cancer.
Chemotherapy for metastatic breast cancer
Your doctor might suggest chemotherapy if your cancer is not estrogen or progesterone positive. The goal is to relieve symptoms, control the cancer, and give you a better quality of life.
Once your cancer has spread, you might need chemotherapy for a long duration. But you might also change chemotherapy medicines or stop chemotherapy depending on how it’s working or how well you tolerate the side effects.
Types of chemotherapy for metastatic breast cancer
Chemotherapy can be given as an IV or a pill. You might take one drug or a combination. Side effects depend on the drug, but there are medicines to help with side effects. Some types of chemotherapy used for metastatic breast cancer are:
Plant alkaloids, and
Targeted therapy for metastatic breast cancer
Targeted therapies are drugs that control cancer by changing the way cells work. For example, you might have targeted therapy for HER2 positive breast cancer, an aggressive type of cancer. The therapy targets a protein called HER2 that makes the cancer grow.
Targeted therapy can be given as a pill or an IV drip in your arm.
Radiation for metastatic breast cancer
Radiation therapy can shrink breast cancer tumors, relieve symptoms, and help you feel more comfortable. You might have it if cancer spreads to
The lymph nodes,
Parts of the brain, or
If cancer spreads to several places in the bones, you might get an injection of radiation to kill cancer cells and control pain.
What if breast cancer spreads to your bones?
Breast cancer that spreads to the bones can weaken them. You may break a bone or have persistent bone pain.
Two types of drugs are used to keep bones from getting thinner or breaking down from metastatic breast cancer. These drug types are called “bisphosphonates” and “osteoclast inhibitors.”
How long do you need treatment for metastatic breast cancer?
If you have metastatic breast cancer, you will likely need to remain on treatment, unless you choose to stop it. If one treatment stops working you can change medications, try a different type of treatment, or join a clinical trial. Clinical trials may give you access to new treatments that are not yet available to the public.
Living with metastatic breast cancer
The goal of treatment is to control metastatic breast cancer for a number of years.
Today, many people live well with metastatic breast cancer while getting ongoing treatment for the cancer and any side effects.
Researchers are discovering more information through clinical trials, and treatments for metastatic breast cancer are becoming more effective.
Slide Show - Understanding Metastatic Breast Cancer
This slide show explains what metastatic breast cancer is, the symptoms to watch for, and the wide variety of treatment options available. If you have metastatic breast cancer you will likely need to remain on treatment, unless you choose to stop it. Being diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer can be overwhelming. But many people continue to live long, productive lives with breast cancer in this stage due to advances in treatment.
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This educational activity has been developed by
American Breast Cancer Foundation and Mechanisms in Medicine Inc.
This activity is supported by an independent educational grant from Pfizer and Genentech.
This website is part of the Animated Patient™ series developed by Mechanisms in Medicine Inc., to provide highly visual formats of learning for patients to improve their understanding, make informed decisions, and partner with their health care professionals for optimal outcomes.