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