10 Things to Know About Metastatic Breast Cancer

by PJ Hamel Patient Expert

Learn to navigate the uncertain waters of metastatic breast cancer.

Digital mammogram showing breast cancer.
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When breast cancer returns

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.

Doctor looking at breast MRI.
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Three locations of recurrence

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).

Doctor talking to patient.
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What is metastatic breast cancer?

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.

Lung cancer illustration.
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Where does it spread?

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.

Young adult female cancer patient sipping tea.
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The original source matters

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.

Doctor writing on clipboard.
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A different approach to treatment

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.

Nurse talking to senior patient.
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The best-case scenario

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.

Chemotherapy drug
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Types of treatments available

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).

 Surgeon giving instruction to medical team.
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Assemble your team

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.

Smiling woman with cancer.
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Life with metastatic breast cancer

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.

Group of diverse breast cancer survivors.
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Remember your advantage

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.

PJ Hamel
Meet Our Writer
PJ Hamel

PJ Hamel is senior digital content editor and food writer at King Arthur Flour, and a James Beard award-winning author. A 16-year breast cancer survivor, her passion is helping women through this devastating disease. She manages a large and active online survivor support network based at her local hospital and shares her wisdom and experience with the greater community via HealthCentral.com.