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 the breast.
Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy
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 can play a role.
How does breast cancer spread?
Breast cancer can invade and grow into the tissue surrounding the breast – or it can travel to other parts of the body and form a new tumor there. Nearly all types of cancer have the ability to spread (including breast), 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:
- It can spread from your breast into surrounding areas (like the lymph nodes under your arm or near your collarbone).
- Cancer cells can travel through the bloodstream to other areas of the body.
- Cancer cells can also move through the lymph node system to other parts of your body.
“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.
Where in the body does breast cancer spread?
In theory, breast cancer can spread to any part of the body, but it most commonly spreads to the lymph nodes, lungs, liver, bones and sometimes the 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 does not mean that you now have lung cancer too.
If your breast cancer has moved to other parts of your body, you might experience symptoms relating to the area it has spread to, but not always.
Here Dr. Roesch explains how metastatic breast cancer can affect different parts of the body:
- Lymph nodes. 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.
- Lungs. 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 the lungs.
- Liver. 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 the skin.
- Brain. Breast cancer that spreads to your brain can cause a variety of neurological symptoms, including headaches, vision changes, dizziness, lightheadedness and mental confusion or fog.
- Bones. 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.
If your breast cancer has spread
Even if your breast cancer has spread to other parts of your body, it does not necessarily mean it’s not treatable. If the cancer cannot be removed, the goal of treatment is to improve symptoms, improve quality of life and extend survival.
“Some women 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,” explains Dr. Roesch. “Your cancer team will help you learn and cope with what you can expect on this journey.”