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. COVID-19 vaccine: Should I reschedule my mammogram?
  36. CT scan
  37. CT scans: Are they safe?
  38. Dense breast tissue
  39. Does soy really affect breast cancer risk?
  40. Dragon Boats and Breast Cancer
  41. Gene expression profiling for breast cancer: What is it?
  42. Genetic Testing for Breast Cancer
  43. Genetic testing for breast cancer: Psychological and social impact
  44. Get ready for possible side effects of chemotherapy
  45. Get the support you need when you have metastatic breast cancer
  46. Ginger for nausea: Does it work?
  47. Hormone therapy for breast cancer
  48. Metastatic breast cancer
  49. Lower your risk of breast cancer
  50. Lumpectomy
  51. Magic mouthwash
  52. Mammogram
  53. Mammogram: Can it find cancer in dense breasts?
  54. Mammogram guidelines: What are they?
  55. Mastectomy
  56. Metastatic breast cancer: Should you get a second opinion?
  57. Modified radical mastectomy
  58. Molecular breast imaging
  59. Infographic: Molecular Breast Imaging
  60. MRI
  61. MRI-guided breast biopsy
  62. Nipple discharge
  63. Nipple-sparing mastectomy
  64. Oncoplastic breast surgery
  65. Palliative care for metastatic breast cancer
  66. Palliative care: Who is it for?
  67. PALS (Pets Are Loving Support)
  68. Paulas story A team approach to battling breast cancer
  69. Pink Sisters
  70. Positron emission mammography (PEM)
  71. Positron emission tomography scan
  72. Precision medicine for breast cancer
  73. Preventive (prophylactic) mastectomy
  74. Prophylactic oophorectomy: Preventing cancer by surgically removing your ovaries
  75. Radiation therapy
  76. Radiation therapy for breast cancer
  77. Relationships and metastatic breast cancer
  78. Infographic: Scalp Cooling Therapy for Cancer
  79. Seeing Inside the Heart with MRI
  80. Sentinel node biopsy
  81. Skin-sparing mastectomy
  82. Stereotactic breast biopsy
  83. Support groups
  84. Tai chi
  85. The Long Race Beating Cancer
  86. Thyroid guard: Do I need one during a mammogram?
  87. Tomosynthesis-guided breast biopsy
  88. Treatment options for metastatic breast cancer
  89. Ultrasound
  90. Sentinel node biopsy for melanoma
  91. Mammogram for breast cancer — What to expect
  92. MRI
  93. Tai chi
  94. Weight Loss After Breast Cancer
  95. Working with your doctor when you have metastatic breast cancer: Interview with a Mayo Clinic expert.
  96. X-ray
  97. Your secret weapon during cancer treatment? Exercise!