breast cancer cell dividing
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When Cancer Goes Beyond Your Breast

If your doctor told you that your breast cancer has spread to other parts of your body, it's at a more advanced stage than if it's only in your breasts. How far it has spread is one of the things your doctor will consider when she tells you the "stage" of your cancer. It's considered "metastatic" if it has spread far from your breasts. Every case is different. For some women, it becomes something they live with for a long time. For others, focusing on pain management and quality of life is the main goal.

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illustration of where breast cancer spreads
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Most Common Places It Spreads

It's still breast cancer, even if it's in another organ. For example, if breast cancer spreads to your lungs, that doesn't mean you have lung cancer. Although it can spread to any part of your body, there are certain places it's most likely to go to, including the lymph nodes, bones, liver, lungs, and brain.

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illustration of lymph nodes
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Lymph Nodes

The lymph nodes under your arm, inside your breast, and near your collarbone are among the first places breast cancer spreads. It’s “metastatic” if it spreads beyond these small glands to other parts of your body. When you're diagnosed with breast cancer, your doctor should check lymph nodes near the tumor to see if they're affected. The lymph system helps drain bacteria and other harmful things from your body. You might not notice symptoms if your breast cancer is in these nodes.

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illustration of bones
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Bones

When breast cancer is in your bones, pain is usually the first symptom. It can affect any bone, including the spine, arms, and legs. Sometimes the bone may be weak enough to break, but treatment often prevents that. If the cancer involves your spine, it can also cause problems with incontinence or going to the bathroom. You might also have numbness or weakness in a part of your body, like an arm or leg. That happens when there’s pressure on the nerves of the spinal cord.

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illustration of liver
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Liver

If breast cancer spreads to your liver, you may have pain in your belly that doesn’t go away, or you might feel bloated or full. You might also lose your appetite and lose weight. You may notice that your skin and the whites of your eyes are turning yellow, which is called jaundice. That happens because your liver isn’t working right.

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illustration of lungs
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Lungs

Breast cancer can spread to the lungs or to the space between the lung and the chest wall, making fluid build up around the lung. Symptoms can include shortness of breath, a cough that won’t go away, and chest pain. Some people lose their appetite, leading to weight loss.

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illustration of brain
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Brain

It's possible for breast cancer to spread to the brain. That can cause headaches that throw off your balance and make falls more likely. You may have numbness or weakness in one part of your body. You might act differently, or you could feel confused or have seizures.

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smiling cancer patient
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Treatments

You may need surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, and medications. The drugs your doctor recommends will depend on your type of breast cancer. For instance, if the hormone estrogen spurs your cancer cells to grow, your doctor would choose different treatment from someone who has HER2 breast cancer, in which a certain protein drives the growth. Pain management is also key, so you can feel as well as possible. 

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Sources | Medically Reviewed on 6/14/2018 Reviewed by Neha Pathak, MD on June 14, 2018

IMAGES PROVIDED BY:

1) STEVE GSCHMEISSNER / Science Photo Library

2-7) Susan Gilbert for WebMD

8) Jessica Key / E+

 

SOURCES:

Dana-Farber Cancer Institute: "Metastatic Breast Cancer Expertise."

Dr. Susan Love Research Foundation.

American Cancer Society.

BreastCancer.org

Inflammatory Breast Cancer Research Foundation.

National Cancer Institute.

U.S. Preventive Services Task Force.

Cancer Research U.K.: "Symptoms of Secondary Breast Cancer."

Reviewed by Neha Pathak, MD on June 14, 2018

This tool does not provide medical advice. See additional information.

THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for general informational purposes only and does not address individual circumstances. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment and should not be relied on to make decisions about your health. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the WebMD Site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.

WebMD Voices

Sheila M.
Swansea, IL
People often tell me, “Well, you should do this or you should do that.” There’s no right or wrong answer on how we deal with this disease. I’ve learned to deal with it on my own terms and in my own way. I continue to let my faith guide me, and I continue to lean on my family and friends for support.
Mary G.
Oregon, WI
Bring a support person to your first appointment to take notes and listen. Learn all you can on reputable websites. Breathe. Gather your inner circle of supportive friends and lean on them. It’s OK to be mad as hell. There will be good and bad days. On bad days, think of the good ones just around the corner.
Sheila M.
Swansea, IL
For a very long time, I didn’t accept it. When I finally did, I stopped worrying about things that were beyond my control and I started enjoying life. Having MBC has given me a new purpose through my advocacy work with Metavivor’s Serenity Project. I want women to stand on my shoulders of hope and love.
Mary R.
Livonia, MI
I always feel better when I’m rested. I sleep 10-12 hours many days. Smiling and having a good sense of humor makes difficult situations better. I don’t worry about small things anymore. Meditation, music, and massages help. I also cope by coloring and sewing, when I have the energy.
Lisa B.
Coral Springs, FL
In addition to treatment, I do daily meditation, which calms my body as well as my mind. I find it to be very peaceful. I also find walking and yoga to be a form of relaxation -- and it’s healthy. I call it ‘doing my homework.’ The drugs are doing their job, and it’s my responsibility to take care of me.
Mary R.
Livonia, MI
When I was first diagnosed, I was in shock. Getting information helped. My husband and children helped by listening and allowing me to cry when I needed to. I also formed a support group at my hospital. Talking as a group and forming friendships is very helpful. We all know what each of us is going through.
Catriona M.
Canal Winchester, OH
Ask family and friends for help and support. It’s so easy to want to try to do it all, but people really do want to help you. You’ll need every ounce of strength you have, so let people bring meals and clean your house if they want to. For many, it’s how they show they love and care about you.
Suzanne K.
San Francisco, CA
Put your energy elsewhere, in a better place. I got involved with new challenges that inspired me. I joined a new company. I got involved with the Cashmere Foundation, which brings the spa experience to patients undergoing chemotherapy. I feel I’m able to pay back, or perhaps pay it forward, while helping others.
Lisa B.
Coral Springs, FL
Within the past 14 years, I’ve been on chemo and hormone therapy. The part that gives me hope is new drugs and therapies are more abundant then 20 years ago, with more to come. Every day, breast cancer is my shadow, but is not my life.
Linda L.
Saddle River, NJ
Be your own advocate. If you have a question for your doctor and don’t understand the answer, ask again. If it’s difficult to speak up, ask a relative or friend to go with you. If you’re not comfortable with your doctor or the treatment she recommends, get a second opinion.
Mary G.
Oregon, WI
Swimming helps my whole body relax and relieves my aching bones. Reaching and pulling strokes stretch out and massage my arm. Yoga keeps my breathing calmer, and I use techniques I learn in class to help me go to sleep at night.
Fabianna M.
Dover, NH
Celebrate small successes. It’s about progress towards wellness, not an all-or-nothing scenario. After surgery, it was a while before I could drive. The day I got back in the driver’s seat, I drove myself to the beach. I remember sitting on a bench for an hour, reveling in the joy of taking my life back.

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