Metastatic breast cancer is another term for stage four breast cancer. It means the cancer has spread to another part of the body, most often the liver, brain, bones, or lungs. This is the most advanced stage of breast cancer. There are over 150,000 women in the United States alone who have metastatic breast cancer, but it’s important to note that it can happen to men, as well.
While metastatic cancer isn’t curable, it is treatable. There are many different treatments available to help slow down the progression of this cancer and help relieve some of the symptoms associated with it, particularly the pain.
Where Can Breast Cancer Spread?
Any cancer that has spread to other areas of the body is referred to by doctors as metastatic. In most cases, the cancer will spread into the bones, lungs, liver, and brain, but it can take years for this to happen. WebMD explains that the cancer is often spread either through the lymph system or bloodstream. The cancer enters into the lymph nodes (axillary nodes) which are located under the arms, from there it travels into the lymphatic system, a collection of nodes and vessels that are linked to the immune system.
There are tests available for doctors to use to help determine if and where the breast cancer has spread. This is how they determine what the plan of treatment will be. Even when breast cancer has spread to other areas of the body, such as the lungs, it will still be treated as breast cancer and not for example, lung cancer.
What Are The Most Common Symptoms?
The symptoms of metastatic breast cancer can vary depending on the degree of how badly the cancer has spread throughout the body and where the cancer has spread.
Metastasis in the Bone
Breast cancer is able to travel into the bones through the bloodstream. If the cancer has spread to the bone, it will cause severe pain, like back or hip pain. It may also result in too much calcium in the blood, swelling and fragile bones that are easily fractured or broken, as well as a leg or arm that feels weak or numb.
BreastCancer.org notes that while breast cancer can spread to any bone, it is most often found in the ribs, spine, pelvis, or the long bones in the arms and legs. It also has the ability to travel into the spongy tissue inside the bones called the bone marrow. This is where the blood cells are made.
Metastasis in the Lungs
Because blood has to flow through the lungs to pick up oxygen, it is a common spot for metastatic breast cancer. If breast cancer does spread into the lungs, it likely won’t cause many symptoms. BreastCancer.org says that if it does cause symptoms, they’ll likely include pain, discomfort, shortness of breath, and persistent coughing.
Metastasis in the Liver
Cancer cells are able to easily travel into the liver through the bloodstream because the liver is what filters the blood. Metastasis in the liver will likely not cause any symptoms. If there are symptoms, they will likely include pain or discomfort in the mid-section, as well as fatigue, weakness, weight loss, poor appetite, fever, and others.
Metastasis in the Brain
Every cancer has the potential to spread into the brain, but according to WebMD, HER2-positive and triple-negative cancers like metastatic breast cancer, are the most likely to spread into this organ. Breast cancer that has spread into the brain will cause symptoms like a headache that doesn’t go away, seizures, vision or hearing changes, sleepiness, as well as the inability to move certain parts of the body. It can also cause memory problems, changes in speech, as well as behavioral or personality changes.
How Do You Treat Metastatic Breast Cancer?
Chemotherapy is the type of treatment most people associate with cancer and it’s usually the first course of action. Using extremely powerful and potent medication, chemotherapy is used to damage or destroy the cancer cells. It also helps shrink the tumor at a more rapid pace.
While chemotherapy is the most effective treatment for metastatic breast cancer, there are some downsides. The medication can cause patients to feel extremely drained of energy, early menopause, hair loss, nausea, and hot flashes.
Targeted therapy is able to target specific characteristics of cancer cells by using special drugs. The overall goal is to stop these cancer cells from growing. Unlike chemotherapy, this form of treatment is able to specifically target the bad cells and leave the healthy ones along. For example, BreastCancer.org explains that targeted therapy can attack the protein that allows the cancer cells to grow rapidly or in an abnormal way.
While it’s nice that patient can avoid all the nasty side effects that come with chemotherapy, there are some risks associated with targeted therapy. For example, this type of treatment increases a patient’s chances of developing blood clots and high blood pressure.
A patient with metastatic breast cancer may be recommended to undergo radiation therapy if they are experiencing intense symptoms because it will help ease the pain and control the spread of cancer in a specific area. Radiation therapy uses high-energy waves that are designed to kill cancer cells.
As with all cancer treatments, there are some downsides to using radiation therapy. This treatment is able to target specific areas of the body, but patients should expect that one of their healthy cells will also be affected. The body will be exhausted as it tries to rebuild any of the tissue that is effected. Patients are advised to ensure they are in good healthy by eating a healthy diet with lots of calories. Your doctor will provide specific diet instructions.
Surgery is sometimes recommended to treat metastatic breast cancer if a doctor is worried about broken bones or cancer cell blockages in the liver. The doctor will either remove the whole breast which is called a mastectomy, or just remove the tumor and the tissue around it. This is called a lumpectomy or breast-conserving surgery.
It’s often used in tandem with radiation therapy. The surgery is used to remove the tumor. This procedure is then followed by a round of radiation therapy to ensure that the tumor doesn’t return. It basically does as final sweep of any cancer cells that might not have been removed during surgery.
The biggest downfalls of surgery are that you’re at risk of developing an infection, plus there’s the pain during recovery. You’ll likely need at least three or four weeks to heal afterwards.
Survival rates are the highest during the early stages of breast cancer, so early diagnosis and treatment is crucial to the prognosis. That being said, even though a metastatic breast cancer diagnosis is scary, it is treatable. Even without a cure, the best plan of action is to do your own research and get educated on all the treatment options because researchers are working hard every day to come up with new solutions.