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Breast Cancer Metastases

Breast cancer cells can break away from the primary tumor and travel throughout the body in the blood or the lymph system. These cells can form new tumors in another part of the body. When this happens, it’s called metastases.

Lynn Henry, M.D., Ph.D., disease lead of the Rogel Cancer Center’s Breast Cancer Program, discusses metastatic breast cancer. This is the process of breast cancer that has spread to another part of the body, including bones, liver, lung, and brain.

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View the transcript for this episode

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Breast cancer most often spreads to the bones, lungs, liver or brain. Even though the new tumor may be located outside of the breast, it is still breast cancer.

Symptoms of breast metastases

If breast cancer spreads to other parts of the body, it may not cause any symptoms. If there are symptoms, what they are often depends on where the cancer has spread.

If breast cancer spreads to the bones, symptoms may be:

  • Bone, back, neck or joint pain
  • Bone fractures
  • Swelling

If breast cancer spread to the brain, symptoms may be:

  • Headache
  • Nausea
  • Seizures
  • Dizziness
  • Confusion
  • Vision changes
  • Personality changes
  • Loss of balance

If breast cancer spreads to the lungs, symptoms may be:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Constant dry cough

If breast cancer spread to the liver, symptoms may be:

  • Yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes (jaundice)
  • Itchy skin or rash
  • Pain or swelling in the belly
  • Loss of appetite

Other symptoms include:

  • Loss of appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Fatigue

Talk to your doctor if you are experiencing any of these symptoms.

The following tests may be used to diagnose metastatic breast cancer:

  • X-ray / Bone scan:
    These tests check for signs of tumor in a particular bone or, in the case of bone scans, the entire skeleton is checked.
  • Computed tomography (CT or CAT) scan:
    These tests produce a cross-sectional image which allows doctors to see inside an organ.
  • Positron emission tomography (PET) or PET-CT scan:
    This test helps a doctor check how an organ (s) is actually functioning.
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI):
    This test provides an in-depth inside your body.
  • Serum chemistry blood test:
    This test checks for specific chemicals in your blood, such as hormones.
  • Complete blood count (CBC):
    This test provides the doctor with information about your overall health.
  • Blood tumor marker tests:
    Tumor markers are chemicals made by the cancer or by normal cells reacting to the cancer.

There are treatment options for metastatic breast cancer. The options depend upon the type of breast cancer and the woman’s age but in general they may include:

  • Hormone therapy
  • Chemotherapy
  • Targeted therapy/drugs (such as trastuzumab, also known as Herceptin)
  • Immunotherapy

Radiation therapy and/or surgery may also be used to remove or shrink tumors that are blocking blood vessels, pressing on the spinal cord, are small enough to make removal practical; or to provide relief of pain or other symptoms.

Metastatic breast cancer treatment focuses on the whole body. When one treatment stops working, another one is used. This allows for long-term cancer control for many patients

Courtesy of the National Cancer Institute

For more specific and in-depth information about metastatic breast cancer, please open/download/print National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN) Guidelines for Patients: Breast Cancer Metastatic. As a member of the NCCN, Rogel Cancer Center physicians helped create these guidelines and routinely follow them.

If you have questions or want to learn how to make an appointment, please contact our Cancer AnswerLine™ at 800-865-1125.