Metastatic Breast Cancer

What is Metastatic Breast Cancer?

Metastatic breast cancer (also called stage IV or advanced breast cancer) is breast cancer that has spread beyond the breast to other organs in the body (most often the bones, lungs, liver, or brain).

Although metastatic breast cancer has spread to another part of the body, it is considered and treated as breast cancer. For example, breast cancer that has spread to the bones is still breast cancer (not bone cancer) and is treated with breast cancer drugs, rather than treatments for a cancer that began in the bones.

Some people have metastatic breast cancer when they are first diagnosed, but this is not common in the U.S. (fewer than 5 percent of diagnoses). More commonly, metastatic breast cancer arises months or years after someone has completed treatment for early or locally advanced (stage I, II or III) breast cancer. This is sometimes called distant recurrence. The risk of breast cancer returning and metastasizing varies from person to person and depends greatly on the biology of the tumor and the stage at the time original diagnosis.

Treatment for Metastatic Breast Cancer

As hard as it is to hear, metastatic breast cancer cannot be cured. Unlike breast cancer that remains in the breast or nearby lymph nodes, you cannot get rid of all the cancer that has spread to other organs. This does not mean, however, that metastatic breast cancer cannot be treated.

Treatment of metastatic breast cancer focuses on length and quality of life. Your treatment plan is guided by many factors, including:

  • Characteristics of the cancer cells
  • Where the cancer has spread
  • Your symptoms
  • Past breast cancer treatments

Survival for metastatic breast cancer varies greatly from person to person. The treatments listed above enable about 15 percent of women to live at least five years after diagnosis with metastatic breast cancer. Some may live 10 or more years beyond diagnosis. It is important to note that all these findings are based on patients diagnosed before some of the newer treatments for metastatic breast cancer were available. Modern treatments for both early-stage and metastatic breast cancer likely mean improved survival for people diagnosed today.

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