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May 8, 2023

What is Metastatic Breast Cancer?

What is Metastatic Breast Cancer?

Cancer that spreads from where it started to a distant part of the body is called metastatic cancer. When it comes to breast cancer, this means that the cancer has spread — or metastasized — outside the breast. Also referred to as advanced or stage 4 breast cancer, metastatic breast cancer typically spreads to the bones, liver, lungs, and brain, although it can invade elsewhere.

If you have been diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer, there is a lot to be hopeful about. With the recent advancements in treatments, patients can live a longer, fuller life. Breast cancer becomes a chronic condition that is not likely to go away but can be managed with the right treatment plan.

Why Does Breast Cancer Metastasize?

There are various reasons why breast cancer metastasizes. For those who were previously diagnosed and treated for breast cancer, it means that there were probably some cancer cells left behind after the initial treatment was complete.

These surviving cancer cells can go dormant or hide, making them undetectable until they one day begin to grow and spread again. When they do, it’s into nearby lymph nodes or blood vessels and then, eventually, through the lymphatic system or bloodstream to a different part of the body. Even after the cancer has spread, it is still referred to and treated as breast cancer because it is made up of breast cancer cells.

If this is your initial diagnosis and breast cancer has already spread, this is called “de novo” metastatic breast cancer.

Metastatic cancer is referred to and treated as the original source. That means breast cancer that spreads to the lungs is called metastatic breast cancer, not lung cancer. The drugs and other therapies used are intended to treat breast cancer, even if it’s not physically located in the breast.

Common Symptoms of Metastatic Breast Cancer

The symptoms associated with metastatic breast cancer typically depend on where the cancer has spread and how much it has grown. It’s important that you bring any symptoms you’re experiencing to the attention of your cancer care team so they can treat them accordingly.

Weight loss, vomiting, or fatigue are some general symptoms to take note of. Other, more specific symptoms are related to the areas in which the cancer has spread.

  • Patients with bone metastasis may experience pain in the bones, back, neck, or joints, bone fractures, or swelling.

  • Patients with brain metastasis could experience headaches, nausea, seizures, dizziness, confusion, changes in vision, changes in personality, or loss of balance.

  • Patients whose cancer has metastasized to the lungs might experience symptoms including shortness of breath, difficulty breathing, or a constant dry cough.

  • Patients with liver metastasis may have symptoms such as yellowing of the skin or whites of the eyes, itchy skin, pain or swelling in the stomach, loss of appetite, or nausea if the cancer has metastasized to their liver.

There might also be times when your doctor notices high enzymes on a liver test or signs of a problem on a chest x-ray. In cases such as this, they may recommend more thorough testing in order to make an official diagnosis.

During follow-up visits with the oncology team, you’ll have bloodwork done that looks for “tumor markers.” If the numbers are rising, it’s a sign that cancer is growing again somewhere in the body. More tests will be done to identify where. This might include a PET scan, an MRI, or other imaging tests that will look at the whole body. Telling your oncologist if you’re experiencing symptoms will help them narrow down where to look first.

What to Ask Your Oncologist if You’re Diagnosed with Metastatic Breast Cancer

Asking questions and having a conversation with your cancer care team can help you feel more in control after receiving a metastatic breast cancer diagnosis. Understanding your specific diagnosis and what to expect regarding treatment goes a long way in being able to make informed decisions about your care. You probably learned a few things along the way during your first round of treatment that will shape your outlook on what steps to take next.

As you consider your options, here are some questions you might want to ask your oncologist could include:

  • Based on the location of my cancer, what kind of prognosis can I expect, and is there anything I can do to improve it?

  • What tests will I need before you can create a treatment plan?

  • What are the goals of the recommended treatment(s)?

  • Will I need surgery again?

  • Is a clinical trial an option for me?

  • 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?

To ensure you get all the information you need, it’s a good idea to keep a notebook. Be sure to write down any questions you have and bring them with you to each appointment so you can take notes. It also helps to bring a friend or family member along for support.

Available Treatment Options for Metastatic Breast Cancer

There are several treatments available for metastatic breast cancer — most of which treat cancer throughout the entire body. Several of these therapies are recently approved specifically for stage 4 breast cancer patients whose cancer has returned.

The oncologist will evaluate your case and work with the rest of the cancer care team to develop a treatment plan tailored to your individual needs with the goal of providing the best outcome.

Treatment Options for Metastatic Breast Cancer May Include:

  • Chemotherapy damages the metastasized breast cancer cells as much as possible.

  • Hormone therapy to treat hormone receptor-positive metastatic breast cancer in hopes of shrinking or slowing cancer cell growth.

  • Targeted therapies are created to “target” specific characteristics of cancer cells to stop growth. Based on several factors, such as whether the cancer is hormone-positive, HER2-positive, or triple-negative, there may be a drug that’s specifically designed to slow the growth of breast cancer.

  • Immunotherapy is an emerging treatment category for breast cancer. Currently, immunotherapy for breast cancer is primarily a checkpoint inhibitor. They help the immune system recognize and attack cancer cells. Extensive research is underway for additional uses of immunotherapies.

Surgery isn’t always a part of metastatic breast cancer treatment. If the cancer has spread to areas such as the bones, it may not be possible to remove it surgically. Radiation therapy is another type of treatment that is typically used for a localized treatment area. Because metastatic breast cancer has spread in the body, radiation may be used more often to treat distant tumors that are causing discomfort.

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.

Take Care of Yourself While Living with Metastatic Breast Cancer

The kind of cancer treatments you receive is an important part of living with metastatic cancer. With that said, it’s equally important that you maintain proper self-care, ensuring that your other physical and emotional needs are met. Your cancer care team 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 the South Chicago Area

The cancer specialists at Affiliated Oncologists in the South Chicago suburbs care for patients with metastatic breast cancer, offering access to the latest in treatments and clinical research while also making your preferences the priority in your treatment plan.

Even if you did not receive treatment the first time at Affiliated Oncologists, we can help you with creating a personalized breast cancer treatment plan. Request a consultation with one of our oncologists at a cancer center located in Chicago Ridge, Mokena, Hazel Crest, Oak Lawn, or Palos Heights, IL.


Categories: Breast Cancer