When Breast Cancer Spreads

If your cancer spreads beyond your breast and the nearby lymph nodes, it's considered advanced, or metastatic. The most common places it spreads to are the lymph nodes, liver, lungs, bones, and brain.

Even if it isn't curable, there are treatments that can help manage your cancer so you’re able to do everyday things, adjusting for how you feel.

A Different Treatment Schedule

Treatments for advanced breast cancer may go on without an end date to keep the disease under control. You'll visit the clinic on a regular basis, and you'll get to know your health care team.

If the treatment works, you'll stay on it as long as it's working well without side effects. If it doesn’t work well or has bad side effects, your doctor will try different treatments.

Your doctor is likely to suggest chemotherapy because it travels through your entire body, attacking all cancer cells.

You will also need hormone therapy if your cancer is sensitive to (meaning fueled by) the hormones estrogen or progesterone. Some people can take targeted treatments, which are drugs that work directly on the changes within cancer cells. These combinations can make chemotherapy work better.

Sometimes, surgery or radiation can ease symptoms.

Regular Tests Keep Tabs on Your Cancer

Every once in a while, you'll get imaging tests to see inside your body. This is one way that doctors check on how your treatments are working and whether the disease has spread. Common imaging tests include:

CT scans, where an X-ray machine circles around as you lie on a table.

Bone scans with an IV infusion that helps show areas with cancer. Your doctor may call this scintigraphy.

PET scans with a special camera and a tracer chemical that goes into your arm by IV.

Sometimes, results are combined for a PET-CT scan. A computer merges the images to find hot spots that may be cancer.

Your doctor will tell you how often you need these tests based on the stage of your disease.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Arefa Cassoobhoy, MD, MPH on May 19, 2020



Erica L. Mayer, MD, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Harvard Medical School.

Rita Nanda, MD, associate director, University of Chicago Breast Cancer Program; assistant professor of medicine, University of Chicago.

Richard J. Bleicher, MD, director, breast fellowship training program, professor, Fox Chase Cancer Center.

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