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Advanced Breast Cancer: What to Expect

Medically Reviewed by Neha Pathak, MD on February 08, 2021

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.

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 they think will work.

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. Almost always, there are ways to control it. If you hurt, talk to your doctor. You may need a new drug or a treatment plan that doesn't have 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.
  • Tend to your emotional health. Any serious illness may stir a range of emotions in you. You may wrestle with anger, sadness, guilt, grief, or depression. Or you may be hopeful or accepting about your diagnosis. These are normal human emotions. But you may feel them more intensely when you have advanced breast cancer. There are no right or wrong feelings. Give yourself room, because you’re going through a lot. Let your doctor and loved ones know if you feel like you need help. Mental health therapy, reaching out to others, and connecting with people in support groups can help you feel less alone.
  • Check into clinical trials. These are research studies to discover new treatments. You may qualify to join a human trial based on your type of breast cancer, your background, and other things. Ask your doctor if you might be a candidate. You also can search for current studies at clinicaltrials.gov.
  • Learn about palliative care. This is a type of care for people with serious illnesses. Palliative care focuses on your quality of life, comfort, pain management, and understanding your treatment options, among other services. It’s for you and your loved ones. Palliative care can start from the moment of your diagnosis and go through end-of-life care. Hospice care is a form of palliative care for people who are expected to live 6 months or less.
WebMD Medical Reference

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?" "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."

National Cancer Institute: “Coping with Your Feelings During Advanced Breast Cancer.”

National Institute on Aging: “What Are Palliative Care and Hospice Care?”

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