When Breast Cancer Returns: 10 Things to Know About Metastatic Breast Cancer

PJ Hamel | March 6, 2013

Reviewed by Todd Gersten, MD

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Learn to navigate the uncertain waters of metastatic breast cancer.

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When breast cancer returns

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Breast cancer is a difficult battle long fought and not easily won. When it comes back, it can be just as difficult, if not more so, than the original case of cancer. But the more you know about the recurring forms of breast cancer, the better prepared you will be to continue your fight against it.

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Three locations of recurrence

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When breast cancer comes back, it does so in one of three ways: local (returns to the same place); regional (in lymph nodes next to the breast); metastatic (in another part of the body).

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What is metastatic breast cancer?

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Metastatic breast cancer is a form of breast cancer in which the cancer has spread, or metastasized, to other areas of the body. For example, a cancer that begins as simple breast cancer can spread into the lungs and the lymph nodes. At that point, the breast cancer is metastatic.

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Where does it spread?

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Cancer can spread to almost anywhere in the body, but breast cancer most commonly spreads to the chest wall, lymph nodes,
bones, lungs, liver and brain.

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The original source matters

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It is extremely rare for other cancers to metastasize to the breast. If you have already had breast cancer and then have a recurrence in other areas, it is most likely due to the original breast cancer and is not a new cancer. This is important because even metastasized breast cancer is often more treatable than cancer that starts in other areas.

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A different approach to treatment

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There are many treatment options for metastatic breast cancer, but the type of treatment you receive depends on these several factors: stage of recurring case of cancer; profile of the cancer; how long since you’ve had treatments for the original cancer; which treatments have already been tried; any other medical issues besides cancer.

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The best-case scenario

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Treatment for metastatic breast cancer will respond best if: the cancer has not spread to any organs; estrogen and/or progesterone hormone receptors are present in the cancer cells; the tumor has not become resistant to hormonal therapy, Herceptin or chemotherapy; you haven’t had several different kinds of therapy for breast cancer already.

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Types of treatments available

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There are several ways to treat and manage metastatic breast cancer.  Each of the treatments fall under one of these three categories: systemic (whole-body) treatment; local treatment (only used if the cancer has metastasized to one area); pain relief (used during the other treatment to improve your quality of life).

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Assemble your team

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You’ll need to reassemble your cancer team to help you meet and beat this new case of cancer, which can include a surgeon, medical oncologist, radiation oncologist, radiologist and pathologist.

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Life with metastatic breast cancer

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The key to living with metastatic breast cancer is patience and adaptability. For many women, living with metastatic breast cancer is much like living with other chronic illness. The end goal is always to help you live as long as possible with the best quality of life.

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Remember your advantage

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Though any kind of cancer is bad news, it is also something you’ve now been through before. You know what questions to ask and what symptoms to expect. You know what you can and cannot do during treatments and when to ask for help.

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