If your doctor has told you that your breast cancer has spread, they may have used the word “metastasis.” When someone is diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer, it means that the cancer has moved to other areas of the body beyond their breast.
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But what exactly does that mean and where can breast cancer cells go? Oncologist Erin Roesch, MD, discusses where breast cancer is most likely to spread and how the type of breast cancer you have plays a role.
Breast cancer can invade and grow into the tissue surrounding your breast — or it can travel to other parts of your body and form a new tumor there. Nearly all types of cancer have the ability to spread (including breast cancer), but whether or not it will spread (and how fast) is often linked to what type of breast cancer you have.
Breast cancer can spread in three ways:
“Every cancer is different, but the type of breast cancer you have typically plays a role in how aggressive or slow moving it is and where it’s most likely to spread,” says Dr. Roesch.
Unfortunately, breast cancer spreads silently, so you won’t know if it’s started spreading until you show signs or symptoms in the affected part of your body where it’s traveled.
For example, if your cancer has traveled to your lungs, you may experience consistent coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath or pain in your affected lung. If it’s spread to your bones, you may experience discomfort similar to arthritis in your hip or back. You may also experience an increase in bone fractures resulting from minor falls, or a sudden loss of appetite or weight.
If you’re experiencing symptoms of metastasis or you’re worried your breast cancer has spread to other areas of your body, you should notify your healthcare provider who can determine whether or not your cancer has spread and the most effective treatment available.
In theory, breast cancer can spread to any part of your body, but it most commonly spreads to your lymph nodes, lungs, liver, bones and, sometimes, your brain. Keep in mind, though, that even if your breast cancer spreads to other areas of your body, it’s still considered breast cancer. For example, if breast cancer spreads to your lungs, it doesn’t mean that you now have lung cancer, too.
Dr. Roesch explains how metastatic breast cancer can affect different parts of your body:
The lymph nodes under your arm are the first place breast cancer is most likely to spread. It might also travel into the tissue surrounding your breast, like in your chest, or it might travel up to your collarbone or lower neck. Breast cancer is only considered metastatic if it spreads beyond these glands and into other parts of your body. If your breast cancer has spread to this area, you might experience pain, swollen lymph nodes or a lump under your armpit.
Breast cancer that has spread to your lungs can cause shortness of breath, chest pain, a persistent cough or it might cause you to cough up blood. The cancer can also grow to fill the space between your lungs and chest wall, causing fluid to back up into your lungs.
If your cancer has spread to your liver, you might experience stomach pain, bloating, have a swollen belly or feel full, even if you haven’t recently eaten. You might also experience a loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting or jaundice, which is a yellowing of your skin.
Breast cancer that spreads to your brain can cause a variety of neurological symptoms, including headaches, vision changes, dizziness, lightheadedness and mental confusion or brain fog.
Breast cancer can spread into your bones and make them weak. You might experience bone aches, pain or tiredness. You might also be more prone to bone breaks or fractures because of cancer cells being embedded in your bones or spinal cord.
Even if your breast cancer has spread to other parts of your body, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not treatable. If the cancer can’t be removed, the goal of treatment is to improve symptoms, improve your quality of life and extend your survival.
“Some people live with breast cancer for several years as they learn to adjust and accept that they’ll be on treatment for an indefinite period of time,” notes Dr. Roesch. “Your cancer team will help you learn and cope with what you can expect on this journey.”