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