Where Does Breast Cancer Spread?

When cancer cells in your breast spread to other parts of your body, it’s called metastatic breast cancer. Your doctor might refer to it as stage IV or advanced cancer. The cells can go anywhere, but there are a few places where they typically appear.

No matter where breast cancer spreads, there are treatments that can manage your condition and help you continue to live your life.

Where Can Breast Cancer Go?

Breast cancer mostly spreads to the bones, lungs, liver, and brain. (It’s still called breast cancer, even though it’s moved somewhere else.) When it does, you may start to notice symptoms that affect that area of your body.

Bones: swelling, intense pain, bones that break easily, and pain in your bones, back, neck, or joints

Lungs: long-lasting cough, trouble breathing, chest pain

Liver: Jaundice, or skin with a yellow tint, rashes and itchy skin, not feeling hungry, stomach pain

Brain: headaches that won’t go away, problems with your vision, seizures, vomiting and nausea, memory troubles, feeling dizzy

Other, less common, places where breast cancer spreads include:

  • Ovaries
  • Colon
  • Adrenal glands (small glands on top of your kidneys)
  • Pancreas
  • Skin

Let your doctor know as soon as you can if you have any of these symptoms. They don’t always mean your cancer has moved to another organ, but your doctor might want you to take some tests to make sure.

How Does Breast Cancer Spread

First, the cancer cells break away from tissue in the breast. They travel through your blood and lymphatic system, which is a part of your immune system. They usually appear first in the lymph nodes, small glands that filter fluid, under your arm and near your breast. Sometimes, they move to lymph nodes near the collarbone or breastbone. From there, they continue to move to other areas of your body and form tumors there.

How Will I Know if My Breast Cancer Spreads

Your doctor will use specific kinds of tests to find out if your cancer has gone to other places in your body. First, your doctor will want to know how you’re feeling. They will ask you about any symptoms you’re having and your overall health. They might also look at the size of your tumor and check your lymph nodes.

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After that, the doctor may give you:

Blood tests. They look for signs of anything abnormal that’s happening in your body. For example, results from a liver function test can let your doctor know that breast cancer may have gone to your liver. High levels of some substances in your blood hint that the cancer has spread to your bones.

Imaging scans. These tests make detailed pictures of the inside of your body. They help your doctor pinpoint any cancer spread. These tests include:

Biopsy. Your doctor removes a small amount of tissue from your body and looks at it under a microscope to see if there are any cancer cells in it.

Treatment Choices

There is no cure for metastatic breast cancer, but you and your doctor have several options for treating it, including:

  • Chemotherapy. Medicines work to shrink or kill cells with cancer.
  • Hormone therapy. Stops cancer cells from getting the hormones they need to grow.
  • Immunotherapy. Helps your body’s immune system fight cancer and eases side effects from other treatments.
  • Targeted therapy. Medicines target specific parts of breast cancer cells to stop them from growing.

To ease symptoms of metastatic breast cancer, or to prevent them, you may have:

  • Radiation therapy. High-energy rays kill cancer cells in a specific part of the body.
  • Surgery. Doctors remove tumors that may cause pain or other symptoms.

Your doctor might also say you need more than one of type of therapy. Talk to your doctor about the treatment plan that will help you the most.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on June 18, 2020

Sources

SOURCES:

CDC: “How is Breast Cancer Treated,” “Cancer Treatments.”

National Breast Cancer Foundation: “Metastatic Breast Cancer.”

John Hopkins Medicine: “Metastatic Breast Cancer.”

American Cancer Society: “Surgery for Breast Cancer,” “Lymph Node Surgery for Breast Cancer,” “Finding Advanced Cancer,” “Imaging Tests to Find Out if Breast Cancer Has Spread,” “Finding Advanced Cancer,” “Treatment for Stage IV (Metastatic) Breast Cancer,” “Targeted Therapy for Breast Cancer.”

Mayo Clinic: “Breast Cancer,” “Breast Cancer Staging,” “Brain Metastases,” “What is Metastatic Breast Cancer?”

Cleveland Clinic: “Breast Cancer Pain.”

BMJ Case Reports: “Unusual Breast Cancer Metastasis.”

American Osteopathic College of Dermatology: “Metastatic Skin Cancer.”

International Journal of Surgery Case Reports: “An ovarian mass after breast cancer: Metachronous carcinoma or metastasis? A case report.”

Journal of Community Hospital Internal Medicine Perspectives: “Metastasis to the pancreas and stomach from a breast cancer primary: a case report.”

Biomedical Research and Therapy: “Metastatic Breast cancer to colon: An unusual site of metastasis with a review of literature.”

Informed Health: “Diagnostic Tests for metastatic breast cancer.”

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