Everything you need to know about metastatic breast cancer

Everything you need to know about metastatic breast cancer

Although the occurrence of breast cancer can be seen in both genders, it is more common in women. Owing to better treatment and earlier detection, the mortality rates due to breast cancer have decreased. According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), the country is home to more than 3.1 million breast cancer survivors.

Breast cancer that begins to spread and invade other organs of the body is known as metastatic breast cancer, or in layman terms, known as Stage 4 breast cancer. Metastatic breast cancer causes cancerous cells to spread through the lymphatic system or the bloodstream and while there is no cure, the available treatments do provide a better quality of life.

What are the stages of breast cancer?

Breast cancer has multiple stages. Unfortunately, almost 30% of cases of early-stage breast cancer diagnosis reach the metastasis stage.

  • Stage 0: This is the non-invasive type of cancer. At this stage, the cancer cells remain in the milk ducts of the breast, and if treated, can be prevented from turning into invasive cancer.
  • Stage 1: The cancer cells start invading the breast tissues surrounding them. It is further divided into two categories depending on the distance to which the cancer cells have spread. Surgery is the primary treatment option at this stage.
  • Stage 2: Divided into two subcategories depending upon the invasiveness of cancer, this stage shows growth and spread of cancer cells inside the breast. The treatment includes surgery and combination therapy.
  • Stage 3: Cancer spreads from the breast to the lymph nodes or the wall of the chest or breast. It is also known as locally advanced breast cancer. Treatment options are chemotherapy, surgery, and radiation therapy.
  • Stage 4: Cancer spreads not only to the adjacent lymph nodes but also to more distantly located lymph nodes and organs. It is a more advanced stage and includes a combination of therapies.

How to check for metastatic breast cancer?

Despite the best treatment, the recurrence of cancer is more common than you would like to believe. Almost every type of cancer can project metastasis and recurrence.

The symptoms of metastatic breast cancer will mainly depend on a combination of the area of the body the cancer has spread along with where the breast cancer originated. The most common organs that breast cancer can be found metastasizing are bones, liver, lungs, and the brain.

The possible symptoms depending on the site of metastasis are:

  • Nipple discharge, pain, or lump in the underarm or breast

Bone metastasis symptoms may include:

  • Bone pain or pain of the neck, back, and joints
  • Fractures, swelling, or decreased alertness
  • Numbness or weakness of limbs

Brain metastasis symptoms occur if the cancer has spread to the central nervous system. These symptoms include:

  • Memory loss
  • Headaches
  • Hindrance in hearing or vision
  • Loss of balance and dizziness
  • Confusion, seizures, or strokes
  • Difficulty in moving certain body parts

Breast cancer that has spread to the lungs will present with:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Difficulty in breathing
  • Persistent dry cough
  • Chest pain

The symptoms present in liver metastasis are:

  • Jaundice
  • Fluid buildup causing swelling of the abdomen
  • Rashes or itching
  • Pain in the liver region
  • Loss of appetite
  • Tiredness, confusion,
  • Yellowing of eyes or skin
  • Bellyache

Remember that metastatic breast cancer is an advanced level of cancer. The spread or recurrence can even occur months or years after the first treatment.

Diagnosis and treatment options
While there are no available treatment options to cure metastatic breast cancer, there are options available that help patients with a better quality of life and extend their longevity.

  • Chemotherapy can be recommended by the oncologist before or after the surgery. It is used to reduce the size of cancer cells or to partly destroy them before the surgery. After the surgery, it is administered to eliminate the remaining cancer cells if any.
  • Hormone therapy for breast cancer is distinguished into two most common types, Selective Estrogen Receptor Modulators (SERMs) and Aromatase inhibitors. SERMs prevent estrogen from reaching cancer cells and aromatase halts estrogen production altogether.
  • Radiation therapy is used to help shrink and destroy the remaining cancer cells in the breast, chest, or underarms after the surgery.
  • Targeted therapy includes medications that target specific characteristics of cancer cells, like their protein content that allows the cell to grow at an abnormal rate.
  • Surgery can be recommended to the patient depending on their condition.

Natural remedies
Along with the usual treatment options for metastatic breast cancer, the patient can also opt for natural treatment procedures with the consent of their doctor. Some of the remedies are:

  • Acupuncture: It helps relieve nausea caused due to chemotherapy and relieves certain pains.
  • Massages: Known to decrease pain in cancer patients and helps decrease stress, anxiety, and fatigue.
  • Exercising: Certain studies show that some gentle exercise can help prolong the life of cancer patients and also assist in a good night’s sleep.

Practices like meditation, yoga, music therapy, and others are equally safe and beneficial. All of this helps manage the symptoms and lessens the side effects of treatment procedures.

In addition to these options, patients are also provided with palliative care to help them come to terms with their condition and the difficulties it presents.

This article is for information purposes only. Always consult and seek the advice of a physician/licensed healthcare professional with any questions regarding a medical condition or medication.