Advanced Breast Cancer: What to Expect

Sometimes breast cancer can spread from your breast to other parts of your body, most often to your bones, lungs, liver, or brain. This is called advanced breast cancer. You may also hear it called metastatic or stage IV disease.  Although it’s in other areas, it's still breast cancer and doctors treat it with breast cancer drugs.

Advanced breast cancer mainly affects women, but men can get it, too. For anyone, it can turn life upside down. There’s no cure for the disease, but there are treatments that can control it. And new therapies can help you feel better and often live longer.

How Does Breast Cancer Spread?

Doctors think this happens because cancer cells spread to other organs through the blood or lymph system.

How You’ll Feel

Some people with advanced breast cancer may not have symptoms, but many do. The ones you have depend on the size of your tumor and where it has spread in your body. Cancer in your bones can be painful and cause fractures. Tumors in your lungs can make it harder to breathe. Treatments can help relieve these problems. For instance, you can take drugs to make your bones stronger. 

Treatments for Advanced Breast Cancer

For other types of breast cancer, where tumors are only in the breast, surgery is the main way to fight the disease. But once cancer has spread, the most common treatments are ones that travel through your blood to treat your whole body. These include hormones that shrink tumors, chemotherapy and medicines that target certain types of cancer cells. Chemo shrinks tumors faster than hormones, but it has more side effects and may stop working after a while. Some people may choose to have a few different types of chemotherapy over time. 

Your doctor will recommend treatments she thinks will work, but only you can decide the types you want and how long to have them. Talk openly with your doctor about what you want to get out of your care.

What You Can Do

Most people with advanced breast cancer have common concerns. Here are some tips that may help:

  • Stay ahead of pain.  Not everyone will have pain from their disease or treatment. If you do, don’t assume that you just have to live with it. There are almost always ways to control it. If you hurt, talk to your doctor. You may need a new drug or a treatment plan that doesn't cause uncomfortable side effects. It may also help to add a pain doctor to your cancer team.
  • Stay connected. Besides friends and family, there are many support services for people with advanced breast cancer. You can share how you’re feeling and learn ways to live better every day. Your doctor can tell you how to find the right groups.
  • Stay positive. Treatments for advanced breast cancer are getting better all the time. One that's right for you could be around the corner.
WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on June 12, 2018

Sources

SOURCES:

Susan G. Komen: "Facts for Life: Metastatic Breast Cancer," "Questions to Ask Your Doctor." 

National Cancer Institute: "Metastatic Cancer Fact Sheet."

American Cancer Society: "What is breast cancer in men?"

American Cancer Society: "Treatment of Stage IV (Metastatic) Breast Cancer

Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center: "Living with Stage 4."

Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center: "Researchers Find Genetic Key to Breast Cancer's Ability to Survive and Spread."

Medscape: "Impact of Lifestyle Factors on Prognosis among Breast Cancer Survivors in the USA."

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