Breast cancer is the second most common cause of death from cancer in women. The 5-year survival rate for women with metastatic breast cancer is 27% while that for men is 25%.
It is important to remember that breast cancer is treatable at any stage. Treatments for metastatic breast cancer are continually improving and have been proven to help people with metastatic breast cancer live longer with better quality of life.
What is metastatic breast Cancer
Metastatic breast cancer, also known as advanced, secondary, or Stage IV breast cancer, is the spread of cancerous cell growth to areas of the body other than where the cancer first formed. This may happen before or after treatment of the cancer in the breast, or it may occur from a recurrent breast cancer (breast cancer that returns following a period where it could not be detected). Though breast cancer cells can spread to almost any part of the body, they most commonly spread to the bones. Other common sites include the lungs, liver, brain and skin. It is this new cancer that is called a metastasis.
Signs and symptoms
The symptoms and signs that people with metastatic breast cancer may experience depend on where and how much the cancer has spread. Sometimes people with metastatic breast cancer do not have any of these changes. Or, the cause of a symptom may be a different medical condition that is not cancer.
The following signs or symptoms should be discussed with a doctor.
Bone metastasis symptoms
- Bone, back, neck, or joint pain
- Bone fractures
Brain metastasis symptoms
- Vision changes, such as double vision or loss of vision
- Personality changes
- Loss of balance
Lung metastasis symptoms
- Shortness of breath
- Difficulty breathing
- Constant dry cough
Liver metastasis symptoms
- Yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes, called “jaundice”
- Itchy skin or rash
- Pain or swelling in the belly
- Loss of appetite
Other symptoms and signs
- Loss of appetite
- Weight loss
Metastatic breast cancer is different from early stage breast cancer because you will be treated and monitored for breast cancer for the rest of your life. At present, there is no cure. The goal of treatment for metastatic breast cancer is to manage the disease by slowing the growth of the cancer cells and to prevent the disease from spreading further. Treatment for metastatic breast cancer also aims to help you manage the symptoms associated with the disease.
Everyone reacts to treatment differently. For some people, certain treatments may work for long periods of time, or some may not work at all. It is common for your cancer to adapt to your treatment, even if it has been working well to control your cancer. When one treatment stops working, you and your health care team will look at other treatment options. Fortunately there are new ones being developed all the time.
Living with metastatic breast Cancer
For many people with metastatic breast cancer, a good quality of life is possible for months or even years. When there are effective treatments for metastatic cancer, your situation may be like someone with a chronic (long-term) disease. The cancer can be treated to keep it from worsening, but it cannot be cured.
Living with metastatic cancer is challenging. Each person with metastatic breast cancer has individual concerns and challenges. With any challenge, a good first step is being able to recognize your fears and talk about them. Effective coping requires:
- Understanding the challenge you are facing
- Thinking through solutions
- Asking for and allowing the support of others
- Feeling comfortable with the course of action you choose
Many people with metastatic cancer find it helpful to join an in-person support group or an online community. This allows you to talk with people who are experiencing similar first-hand experiences. Other options for finding support include talking with a friend or member of your health care team, individual counseling, or asking for assistance at the learning resource center of the place where you receive treatment.
Monitoring your health
During treatment, your health care team will continue to check to make sure the cancer has not worsened, manage any side effects, and monitor your overall health. This may include regular physical examinations, blood tests, or imaging tests. The types of tests you receive depend on several factors including your current health and the types of treatment given.
The anticipation before having a test or waiting for test results can add stress to you or a family member. This is sometimes called “scan-xiety.” Learn more about how to cope with this type of stress.
Staying as healthy as possible
People with metastatic breast cancer are encouraged to follow established guidelines for good health, such as not smoking, limiting alcohol, eating well, and managing stress. In addition, it is important to have recommended medical checkups and tests to take care of your health.
Regular physical activity can help with your strength and energy levels. Your health care team can help you create an appropriate exercise plan based upon your needs, physical abilities, and fitness level. Cancer rehabilitation may be recommended, and this could mean any of a wide range of services such as physical therapy, pain management, nutritional planning, and emotional counseling. The goal of rehabilitation is to help people maintain control over many aspects of their lives and remain as independent and productive as possible for as long as possible.
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