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:
Feb. 05, 2020
- Severe, worsening pain
- Bones that are prone to breakage and fracture
- Recurrent, progressively worsening headache
- Vision problems
- Vomiting or nausea
- Yellow appearance of the skin (jaundice)
- Rash or itchy skin
- Abdominal pain, loss of appetite
- Persistent cough
- Difficulty breathing
- Chest pain
See more In-depth
- Amin MB, et al., eds. Breast. In: AJCC Cancer Staging Manual. 8th ed. New York, N.Y.: Springer; 2017.
- Bland KI, et al., eds. Solitary metastases. In: The Breast: Comprehensive Management of Benign and Malignant Diseases. 5th ed. Elsevier; 2018. https://www.clinicalkey.com. Accessed Jan. 3, 2020.
- Breast cancer — metastatic: Signs and symptoms. Cancer.Net. https://www.cancer.net/cancer-types/breast-cancer-metastatic/symptoms-and-signs. Accessed. Jan. 6, 2020.