What is Metastatic Breast Cancer?

During Breast Cancer Awareness Month each October, there’s a lot of conversation about breast cancer, but there’s very little said about metastatic breast cancer. 

That’s largely because many people don’t know exactly what it is or how it affects a person’s health. 

Take a few minutes this month to learn more about this specific type of breast cancer. Dr. Katherine Mackenzie, a family medicine physician with University Health, fills in the details below.

Defining Metastatic Breast Cancer

There are multiple stages of breast cancer, categorized by whether cancerous cells have spread and how far they’ve spread. Metastatic breast cancer is an advanced stage of cancer that affects nearly 170,000 American women.

“Metastatic cancer is when breast cancer cells spread from where they started to a distant part of the body, such as the lungs, bones, or brain,” Mackenzie says. “Metastatic cancer is also referred to as stage IV breast cancer.”

This stage of breast cancer is often diagnosed after an initial breast cancer diagnosis, as the cancer spreads. But it can also be diagnosed in those who didn’t know they had breast cancer before it spread throughout the body. In fact, up to 10% of women are first diagnosed with stage IV breast cancer, which is called “de novo metastatic breast cancer.”

Symptoms of Metastatic Breast Cancer

The symptoms of metastatic breast cancer mirror those of other stages of breast cancer and can include: 

  • A breast lump
  • Thickening of the skin over the breast
  • Nipple tenderness or discharge
  • Breast pain 
  • Change in breast shape or size

Along with those breast-related symptoms, metastasized breast cancer will also cause pain and other symptoms in the area of the body where the cancer has spread.

Routine screenings can help detect breast cancer before it metastasizes, which is important because cancer can spread quickly.

“The rate of growth of any cancer will depend on many factors, though on average breast cancers double in size every 180 days or about every six months,” Mackenzie says. “If a patient undergoes routine screening, it is possible for breast cancer to be detected promptly.”

Risk Factors for Metastatic Breast Cancer

The risk factors for stage IV breast cancer are the same as those for other stages of breast cancer, including both controllable and uncontrollable risk factors.

“Risk factors include, but are not limited to, advancing age, having BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutations, being of Ashkenazi Jewish descent, having a first-degree relative with breast cancer, having been exposed to radiation and having dense breasts,” Mackenzie says.

Having dense breasts is a risk factor that’s relatively newly recognized. Many American women have dense breasts, which means the breasts contain more fibrous and glandular tissue than fatty tissue. Researchers aren’t certain why that increases the risk of breast cancer, but there’s a known connection.

Treating Metastatic Breast Cancer 

At this time, there is no cure for metastatic breast cancer, but there are a variety of treatment options. 

“Different treatment options depend on the characteristics of the cancer, whether or not the cancer has spread, and if the patient has undergone prior treatments,” Mackenzie says. “In terms of prognosis, the five-year relative survival rate for women and men with metastatic breast cancer in the U.S. is 30% and 19%, respectively.”

Treatment may include a combination of hormone therapy, chemotherapy, immunotherapy and targeted drugs. In some situations, surgery or radiation therapy may also be recommended, along with other therapies to treat individual symptoms.

Preventing Metastatic Breast Cancer

Because some risk factors for breast cancer are beyond your control, there’s no guaranteed way to prevent breast cancer. Many risk factors, though, are controllable and related to lifestyle habits.

Exercising regularly, eating a diet filled with fruits and vegetables, not smoking and limiting alcohol consumption can all help lower the risk of breast cancer. Having regular preventive screenings is also important, especially when it comes to lowering the risk of metastasized breast cancer.

“The United States Preventive Services Task Force recommends that all women be screened for breast cancer starting at the age of 40,” Mackenzie says. “Primary care physicians play a key role in cancer screening. We can coordinate your physical examinations and imaging testing, such as mammograms for breast cancer, as well as coordinate care with specialists if deemed necessary.” 

Breast Health at University Health

Learn more about the breast health services at University Health.

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