The signs and symptoms of metastatic breast cancer

12 Oct 2021

If you’ve been diagnosed with, or treated for, breast cancer, then your doctor may have discussed the possibility of metastatic breast cancer. Here’s what this means and symptoms to be aware of. Remember to always discuss your concerns with your healthcare team.

Metastatic breast cancer, otherwise known as advanced, secondary or stage IV breast cancer, is the most advanced stage of breast cancer. It means that breast cancer has spread from its original location (the breast) to a new location, or further. Even though the cancer may be in other parts of your body, if the cancer began in your breast it will always be referred to as breast cancer.

Cancer cells can travel through the body via the lymph nodes and/or blood vessels. Typically, breast cancer can spread to the bones, liver, lungs and brain, although this list is not exhaustive and other organs can be affected. If you have metastatic breast cancer it does not necessarily mean that the cancer will travel to all of these areas.

Most women who are diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer have previously been diagnosed with an earlier stage of breast cancer (called the primary cancer). The primary cause of a metastatic breast cancer diagnosis is because treatment (such as radiation or chemotherapy) did not destroy all the cancerous cells. These cells can them grow and spread again. Remember, these cancer cells can remain hidden or undetected; the cancer did not spread because of anything you may have done.

If you have been diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer for the first time, you may receive a diagnosis of “de novo metastatic breast cancer”; around 6% of women and 9% of men will be diagnosed with this when they’re first presented with breast cancer.

The following symptoms of metastatic breast cancer are some of the common symptoms which are associated with cancer that has spread. These include fatigue, unexplained weight loss and a poor appetite. You may also have had a liver test which showed high enzyme levels and/or a chest x-ray which highlighted a health problem.

These symptoms may occur at any time – every person is different.

The following symptoms are associated with cancer which has metastasized in these areas:

Bone metastases: This occurs when the cancer has spread to bones. Common sites include the ribs, pelvis, spine and the upper bones of the arms and legs.

  • Bone pain
  • Fragile bones or bones that break easily
  • Swelling

Brain metastases: The following symptom(s) may occur if the cancer has spread to the brain. Some people also experience weakness in a specific part of the body, such as a limb or blurred vision.

  • Headaches, or headaches which have worsened
  • Blurred or disturbed vision
  • Seizures
  • Nausea and vomiting (not relating to treatment)
  • Behavioural or personality changes

Liver metastases: if the cancer has spread to your liver you may experience bloating or swelling, due to a build-up of fluid, along with (some of) the following symptoms.

  • Jaundice
  • Itchy, irritated skin or rash
  • Stomach problems
  • Nausea and vomiting

Lung metastases: A common symptom that breast cancer has spread to the chest is a feeling of heaviness or pain in the chest. Other symptoms which can occur include:

  • Persistent cough
  • Difficulty catching your breath
  • Chest pain

It’s important to remember that many of the above symptoms may also be an indication of another type of illness or infection. It’s important to speak to you doctor as soon as possible about your symptoms and concerns as soon as possible.