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Metastatic Breast Cancer - Causes, Common Sites, Symptoms, Diagnosis, and Treatment

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Breast cancer spread to other body parts is called metastatic breast cancer. To know more on this topic, read below.

Medically reviewed by

Dr. Rajesh Gulati

Published At September 6, 2022
Reviewed AtOctober 10, 2023

Introduction:

Cancer is a scary and fast-spread disease affecting the world population. Though most prevalent among certain groups, it has not excluded affecting any particular group. This might be disheartening to hear, but breast cancer ranks first among the most common types of cancer. Unfortunately, it is also the most common cancer type to metastasize (spread) to other organs. Also, breast cancer metastasis shuts down the possibility of a permanent cure for cancer. The details below are everything you need to know about breast cancer that has metastasized.

What Is Metastatic Breast Cancer?

Metastasis means to spread. So, metastatic breast cancer is breast cancer that has spread to other body parts. It is the advanced stage of cancer, also called stage four breast cancer. Even though it has spread to other organs, it is still addressed as breast cancer, keeping its origin in mind. As per research, around one in three women affected by breast cancer are prone to metastasis.

Cancer that has already spread when diagnosed for the first time is named Denovo metastatic cancer. It usually happens when the cancer gets identified in a later stage, or there is a delay in providing treatment. Cancer that has been sought treatment for in the past, many months or years back, reoccurs in some instances. Such cases are called distant recurrence.

What Are the Causes of Breast Cancer Metastasis?

  • Though it is difficult to point out a particular cause for the spread of cancer, the cancer treatment failing to kill all the cancer cells or the presence of cancer cells that escaped exposure, and cancer cells remaining dormant are considered the possible causes.

  • The spread of breast cancer is beyond anybody’s control; blaming the patient or the patient feeling guilty about doing something wrong is completely irrelevant.

How Does Metastatic Breast Cancer Spread?

The spread of metastatic breast cancer happens mainly through lymphatics and blood vessels. The breast tumor breaks and spreads initially to the nearby lymph nodes. The common lymph nodes to which the cancer spreads are the lymph nodes in the breast, axillary lymph nodes (those present in the underarms), and the lymph nodes near the collarbone. Then it enters the lymphatic system and spreads to other organs. After reaching those organs, it starts developing into new cancer.

What Are the Most Common Sites of Breast Cancer Metastasis?

The common sites of breast cancer metastasis include the liver, lungs, bones, brain, and lungs. It can spread to multiple organs at the same time as well. Symptoms vary depending on the organ to which the cancer has metastasized.

The common symptoms of any organ metastasis include:

  • Vomiting.

  • Fatigue.

  • Sudden and drastic unexplained weight loss.

  • Numb feeling.

  • Change in appetite.

If the breast tumor metastases to the brain, it presents the following symptoms:

  • Headaches.

  • Feeling of heaviness.

  • Vision changes.

  • Vomiting.

  • Seizures, along with neurological problems.

If the metastasis is to the bone, symptoms include:

  • Pain in bones.

  • Pain in the joints, and swelling along the bone can occur; also, the bone becomes brittle and can break easily.

In lung metastasis, multiple respiratory symptoms include:

  • Breathing difficulty.

  • Chest pain.

  • Continuous nonhealing cough, and feeling of a block when breathing.

Liver metastasis presents with the following symptoms:

  • Jaundice.

  • Symptoms in the stomach.

  • Skin rashes.

How Is Metastatic Breast Cancer Diagnosed?

The initial tests to rule out any cancer include;

  • A complete blood test.

  • Mammogram.

  • Ultrasound of the breast.

Based on the affected organs, the diagnostic techniques are customized.

  • Bone scan to rule out the bones to which cancer has spread.

  • MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) of the brain and spine.

  • CT (computed tomography) scan is done to investigate the chest, stomach, brain, and other suspected organs.

  • Biopsy (a small piece of the tissue is taken and sent to the laboratory to study the type of cancer, the sight of onset, assess if it is cancerous, its nature, and the rate of spread of the cancer cells).

  • PET scan (positron emission tomography, a technique that uses radioactive substances that bind to rule out cancer spread).

  • Bronchoscopy is advised in patients suffering respiratory symptoms like a continuous cough.

Who Is Susceptible to Metastatic Breast Cancer?

Though no single definite cause can be blamed for breast cancer’s spread, the following are the causes that could be the reason for the spread.

  • People who are diagnosed with breast cancer only in the later stages.

  • Nature and rate of spread of the cancer cells (some are slow-spreading whereas the others are fast-spread)

  • Availability of treatment - If the initiation of treatment is delayed or proper treatment is not sought.

What Is the Treatment for Metastatic Breast Cancer?

Though this is sad to hear, there is no permanent cure for breast cancer that has metastasized. However, there are treatment options available to minimize and slow down the spread, but permanent destruction of the cancer cells is never possible. Also, a way to prevent the spread has not been figured out yet. The cancer treatment is decided based on the organs affected, the previous treatment, and the nature of the cancer cells.

The treatment options opted for metastatic cancer include,

  • Chemotherapy - This treatment option uses chemicals or anti-cancer drugs to kill the fast-growing cells in the body.

  • Immunotherapy - This treatment method activates or suppresses the immune system to fight against infections in the body.

  • Hormone Therapy - This treatment for cancer stops the growth of cancers that use hormones to grow and spread.

  • Targeted Drugs - The cancer treatment uses anti-cancer drugs to target specific proteins and genes.

  • Radiotherapy - The cancer treatment that uses intense energy to kill fast-growing cancer cells.

In some cases, the combination of any of the above treatments is done based on what the patient’s condition demands. Other than receiving cancer treatment, the patient needs to follow the following to handle invasive cancer treatments;

  • They must follow a healthy lifestyle by eating a healthy and nutritious diet, possibly guided by a nutritionist, and working out regularly.

  • Manage stress by seeking help from close ones or professionals.

Conclusion:

Though cancer treatments are invasive and might drain you out without giving you that permanent cure you expect, they can prolong your lifespan and can slow down its spread. Being emotionally strong might be hard at times, but that goes hand in hand with receiving treatments. So, rather than losing hope, fight cancer! Close ones of the cancer fighters should be supportive and must provide emotional support to them.

Dr. Rajesh Gulati
Dr. Rajesh Gulati

Family Physician

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breast cancermetastasis
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