The American Cancer Society estimates that in 2021 about 281,550 new cases of invasive breast cancer will be diagnosed in women. Breast cancer affects mostly women but men, too, can develop the deadly disease. Further, breast cancer will metastasize in nearly 30% of women diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer.
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Metastatic breast cancer, also called stage IV, is breast cancer that has spread beyond the breast to other parts of your body. Being diagnosed with it can be overwhelming and evoke all kinds of emotions. You may feel scared, anxious, angry, frustrated, or depressed. It is okay to feel these emotions, especially since there is no cure for this disease. Thankfully, effective treatments are available to help slow the progression of cancer or put it in remission.
Where Can Breast Cancer Spread?
Breast cancer metastasizes to different areas or organs in the body. The most common parts of the body breast cancer spreads to are the bones, brain, liver, and lungs. Spreading means the cancer cells broke away from the original tumor inside the breast and traveled through the bloodstream to the lymph vessels.
Once they settle in a new area, the cancer cells multiply until another tumor is formed. The new or metastatic tumor is made up of breast cancer cells. For example, a tumor that forms in the bones is made up of breast cancer cells, not bone cells.
Many women are diagnosed with breast cancer before it becomes metastatic. In some cases, the cancer is stage IV or metastatic when they are first diagnosed. Doctors refer to this as “de novo metastatic,” meaning the cancer wasn’t detected before it spread to another part of the body.
It can take months or years for the cancer to metastasize or it may spread after treatment. There is no cure once the cancer spreads. While the overall 5-year survival rate is 90 percent for breast cancer, the 5-year survival rate after diagnosis with stage IV breast cancer is 28 percent. Factors that affect survival rate include:
- Your age
- Health status
- Type of tissues affected by the cancer
Symptoms of Metastatic Breast Cancer
According to the National Breast Cancer Foundation, your symptoms at stage IV will depend on where in the body the cancer has spread and the degree of metastasis.
- Bone Metastasis: The cancer commonly spreads to the ribs, spine, humerus (long arm bone), and pelvis. The most common symptom of a metastasized tumor in the bone is a sudden, sharp, new pain. Other symptoms include fatigue, nausea, and weakness.
- Lung Metastasis: Metastatic breast cancer in the lung does not typically cause symptoms. When it does, you may experience pain or discomfort in the lung, a persistent cough, or shortness of breath.
- Brain Metastasis: Stage IV breast cancer spreads to the brain in about 10-15% of women. Common symptoms of breast cancer that has spread to the brain include headache, memory problems, or changes in vision, speech, or balance.
- Liver Metastasis: Similar to lung metastasis, there is typically no symptoms when breast cancer spreads to the liver. When they occur, symptoms may include pain or discomfort in the mid-section, weakness, fatigue, fever, poor appetite, or weight loss.
It’s important to keep an eye out for new symptoms as they could be an indicator that the cancer has spread to a new area of your body. You should speak with your doctor right away if you start feeling differently even if you’re undergoing treatment.
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Metastatic Breast Cancer Treatments
Although there’s no cure for stage IV breast cancer, it can be treated. Your doctor may do blood tests, MRIs, or CT scans to determine where new tumors have developed. This helps him or her decide on the most effective treatment for you. Common treatments are as follows.
Surgery is sometimes recommended to prevent broken bones or remove cancer cell blockages in organs such as the liver. Surgery may help if the cancer is now starting to spread to one other location. However, it does not remove all the metastatic breast cancer cells. Notwithstanding, women with stage IV cancer at first diagnosis (de novo metastatic) may have a better survival rate if the primary tumor is surgically removed.
Chemotherapy is the most common type of cancer treatment where one or more chemotherapy medicines are used to target and destroy the cancer cells. Your doctor may recommend chemotherapy if the cancer continues to grow, is growing quickly following other forms of treatment, or has spread substantially to other organs.
Radiation therapy is a cancer treatment that uses a high-energy beam to destroy cancer cells. It is typically recommended after cancer surgery for the removal of individual cancer cells. Doctors use radiation therapy for treating pain, controlling cancer in a specific area, reducing internal bleeding, and lowering bone breakage where cancer weakened the bone.
Targeted therapy involves the use of medication to target specific characteristics of cancer cells, such as a protein that helps cancer grow rapidly or spread. This treatment is considered less harmful to healthy cells than chemotherapy and radiation therapy. Doctors use different types of targeted therapies. For example, immune targeted therapy, which involves using antibodies that work similarly to the antibodies made naturally by your immune system.
Having metastatic breast cancer can seem like a hopeless situation. Remember almost 28 percent of women can live at least five more years after being diagnosed with stage IV breast cancer. Getting the right treatment is crucial to improving symptoms and helping you live a full and productive life.
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