What is metastatic breast cancer?

Learn more about where breast cancer spreads and how it travels through the body.

Metastatic breast cancer is cancer that originated in the breasts and has spread to other parts of the body. It may be apparent at the time of initial breast cancer diagnosis and treatment or occur months or years later as recurrent breast cancer.

Metastatic breast cancer is also known as stage IV breast cancer. In addition, metastatic breast cancer may be called advanced cancer. Advanced cancer generally refers to cancer that can't be cured, but some health professionals may use the term differently.

In metastasis, cancer cells break away from the area where they first formed and travel through the blood or lymph system to form new tumors. Metastatic cancer that spreads from its original location is known by the name of the primary cancer. For example, cancer that has spread from the breasts to the lungs is called metastatic breast cancer rather than lung cancer.

When examined under a microscope, metastatic breast cancer cells from the secondary location share similarities with breast cancer cells rather than cancer cells from the new location. That, along with other tests, is how doctors can usually tell that it's metastatic cancer that has spread from another part of the body rather than a new primary cancer. Second primary cancers do occur but are rare.

Metastatic breast cancer can occur in any part of the body but most commonly affects the bones, brain, liver or lungs.

Symptoms of metastatic breast cancer

Symptoms of metastatic breast cancer vary depending on where the cancer has spread, such as:

  • Bones
    • Severe, worsening pain
    • Swelling
    • Bones that are prone to breakage and fracture
  • Brain
    • Recurrent, progressively worsening headache
    • Vision problems
    • Seizures
    • Vomiting or nausea
  • Liver
    • Yellow appearance of the skin (jaundice)
    • Rash or itchy skin
    • Abdominal pain, loss of appetite
  • Lungs
    • Persistent cough
    • Difficulty breathing
    • Chest pain
Feb. 05, 2020 See more In-depth

See also

  1. 3D mammogram
  2. Alternative and complementary medicine for metastatic breast cancer
  3. Biopsy procedures
  4. Blood Basics
  5. Bone scan
  6. Brachytherapy
  7. BRCA gene test
  8. Breast cancer
  9. Breast cancer chemoprevention
  10. Breast Cancer Education Tool
  11. Breast cancer prevention
  12. Breast cancer radiation: Can it cause dry skin?
  13. Infographic: Breast Cancer Risk
  14. Breast cancer staging
  15. Breast cancer supportive therapy and survivorship
  16. Breast cancer surgery
  17. Breast cancer types
  18. Breast implants: Do they interfere with mammograms?
  19. Breast implants and cancer
  20. Evaluating breast lumps
  21. Breast lumps
  22. Breast MRI
  23. Infographic: Breast Reconstruction Options
  24. Breast self-exam for breast awareness
  25. Chemo Targets
  26. Chemotherapy
  27. Chemotherapy and hair loss: What to expect during treatment
  28. Chemotherapy and sex: Is sexual activity OK during treatment?
  29. Chemotherapy for breast cancer
  30. Chemotherapy nausea and vomiting: Prevention is best defense
  31. Chest X-rays
  32. Complete blood count (CBC)
  33. Conflicting mammogram results: What can I do?
  34. Coping with pain after breast surgery
  35. CT scan
  36. CT scans: Are they safe?
  37. Dense breast tissue
  38. Does soy really affect breast cancer risk?
  39. Dragon Boats and Breast Cancer
  40. Gene expression profiling for breast cancer: What is it?
  41. Genetic Testing for Breast Cancer
  42. Genetic testing for breast cancer: Psychological and social impact
  43. Get ready for possible side effects of chemotherapy
  44. Get the support you need when you have metastatic breast cancer
  45. Ginger for nausea: Does it work?
  46. Hormone therapy for breast cancer
  47. Metastatic breast cancer
  48. Lower your risk of breast cancer
  49. Lumpectomy
  50. Magic mouthwash
  51. Mammogram
  52. Mammogram: Can it find cancer in dense breasts?
  53. Mammogram guidelines: What are they?
  54. Mastectomy
  55. Molecular breast imaging
  56. Infographic: Molecular Breast Imaging
  57. MRI
  58. MRI-guided breast biopsy
  59. Nipple discharge
  60. Palliative care
  61. Palliative care: Who is it for?
  62. PALS (Pets Are Loving Support)
  63. Paulas story A team approach to battling breast cancer
  64. Pink Sisters
  65. Positron emission mammography (PEM)
  66. Positron emission tomography scan
  67. Precision medicine for breast cancer
  68. Preventive (prophylactic) mastectomy
  69. Prophylactic oophorectomy: Preventing cancer by surgically removing your ovaries
  70. Radiation therapy
  71. Radiation therapy for breast cancer
  72. Relationships and metastatic breast cancer
  73. Infographic: Scalp Cooling Therapy for Cancer
  74. Seeing Inside the Heart with MRI
  75. Sentinel node biopsy
  76. Stereotactic breast biopsy
  77. Support groups
  78. Tai chi
  79. The Long Race Beating Cancer
  80. Thyroid guard: Do I need one during a mammogram?
  81. Tomosynthesis-guided breast biopsy
  82. Treatment options for metastatic breast cancer
  83. Ultrasound
  84. Sentinel node biopsy for melanoma
  85. Mammogram for breast cancer — What to expect
  86. MRI
  87. Tai chi
  88. Weight Loss After Breast Cancer
  89. Working with your doctor when you have metastatic breast cancer: Interview with a Mayo Clinic expert.
  90. X-ray
  91. Your secret weapon during cancer treatment? Exercise!