A cancer diagnosis is never welcome news. Once such a diagnosis has been made, doctors will work to determine the stage of the cancer, which helps them develop a treatment plan and prognosis.
Cancer is most treatable when caught in its earliest stages, when tumors may be small and contained. When a person is diagnosed with metastatic cancer, commonly known as stage 4 cancer, treatments are typically much more intensive.
Metastatic cancer refers to cancer that has spread elsewhere from the point of origin. In terms of metastatic breast cancer, cancer cells may be detected beyond the breasts, most notably in the bones, lymph nodes, brain, and/or liver. Although much more invasive, metastatic cancer is not a hopeless situation. It simply requires a different course of treatment to fight the disease.
How does cancer spread?
Almost all cancers can form metastatic tumors, or tumors that form in an area other than where the cancer started. The National Cancer Institute says cancer cells may initially invade nearby healthy tissue, replicating more unhealthy, abnormal cells. Intravasation, or the moving of cancer cells into the walls of nearby lymph vessels or blood vessels, is also common. Once cancer cells are in this free-moving circulatory highway, they can reach other parts of the body. New cancer cells multiply and grow into small tumors in different locations. This proliferation of cancer tumors is called micrometastases.
The ability for metastasis to occur depends on a variety of properties, including the body's immune system defenses. Just because cancer cells reach another area of the body that does not mean they will successfully grow and form a tumor. Metastatic cancer cells can lie dormant and not grow for years, if they grow at all.
Why is it still called breast cancer?
If breast cancer spreads to the bones or lungs, it is not then referred to as bone or lung cancer. Metastatic cancer always takes the name of the first site where the cancer was discovered. When viewed microscopically, cancer cells that have spread generally look the same as the original cancer cells and have some of the same features in common.
What are the symptoms of metastatic breast cancer?
Symptoms will vary depending on where the cancer has spread. If a tumor is small or growing slowly, there may be no symptoms at all. Metastases in the bones can cause pain or fractures. Cancer in the brain can cause headaches, vomiting, pressure, and behavioral changes. Cancer that has moved to the liver can cause jaundice, which is a yellowing of the skin or eyes, and abnormally high enzymes in the liver. Any and all new symptoms should be discussed with a doctor.
What are the treatment options?
Metastatic cancer patients have many effective treatments at their disposal. According to BreastCancer.org, these treatments include systemic, or whole-body, treatment; localized treatment; and pain relief.
Whole-body treatments are usually advised when a cancer has a few metastases. Surgery or a targeted therapy may not be able to attack all of the cancer cells, including those that are not visible.
Additional medications and therapies may be recommended to address specific symptoms. Radiation can target cancer cells in one location, while steroids or surgeries to stabilize bones or other areas may be necessary. Pain-relief medications are often prescribed to keep patients comfortable until the other treatments begin to take effect. Sleeping pills or medications to treat nausea may be prescribed if symptoms are bothersome.
Despite all the advancements in metastatic breast cancer treatments, it is still possible for the cancer to spread. Experimental trials and new drugs still being studied may be recommended in particularly stubborn cases.
A metastatic cancer diagnosis can be troubling, but men and women should not be hopeless. Educating oneself about metastatic cancer and learning about the various treatments can help people on their roads to recovery.