Understanding metastatic breast cancer: Here are answers to some common questions

Published on:21 September 2021, 13:34pm IST
Metastatic cancer is an advanced stage of cancer, which spreads to the bones, liver, lungs, and even the brain. It can only find its way to the abdomen and skin. Read on to know more
metastatic cancer
Metastatic cancer can show up differently for different people. Image courtesy:
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A few decades ago, breast cancer was a rare occurrence. Today, the scenario looks altogether different with the surge in numbers. The statistics are proof enough. As per data released by Breast Cancer India, the condition accounts for more than 27% of all new cancer cases. Alarmingly, the findings reveal that the age group of new patients coming annually has dropped from less than 55 years to under 40 years. 

The situation is far worse in other countries, including the USA, where one in eight women are likely to develop the disease at some point in their lives. 

No, we aren’t trying to instill fear in any way. Instead, breast cancer can be controlled, if it is detected in the early stages. The problem arises when it becomes too advanced and spreads beyond the breast and surrounding lymph nodes. The condition is then termed metastatic breast cancer or stage 4 breast cancer.  

This means cancer can spread to the bones, liver, lungs, and even the brain. It can only find its way to the abdomen and skin. The causes could be many, but as per the National Cancer Institute, metastasis takes place when the cancer cells enter the bloodstream and lymphatic system and flow all over the body.  Moreover, metastasis can appear differently for different people. 

What are some common symptoms of metastatic breast cancer?
Some of these are common symptoms that could manifest due to other conditions. Therefore, it is advised to doubly check with your doctor, before you ascertain anything.

1. Fatigue: This is one of the first few signs that could tell you that your cancer has metastasized. That’s because your cancer cells also affect the healthy cells, and in turn, your body is unable to receive nutrition. As per research by John Hopkins Medicine, this activity starves your cells and you feel tired all day. Sometimes, cancer can also give rise to anemia.

metastatic cancer
Experiencing fatigue is one of the sings of metastatic cancer. Image courtesy: Shuttertsock

2. Low appetite: In certain cases, a person suffering from metastatic cancer might lose their appetite. They might also experience nausea and vomiting, and might not be able to eat much.

3. Extreme weight loss: If cancer is starving your healthy cells, and you do not receive nutrition, you are bound to lose weight. It’s all a cycle — you lose your appetite, and start losing oodles of weight. 

Are there any localised symptoms?
As mentioned earlier, metastatic breast cancer spreads to the bones, lungs, liver, and brain. It could also spread to other parts of the body. What’s important to remember is that most patients who suffer from this disease do not have any symptoms in their breasts. 

Here’s what you need to know,, when it spreads to different organs:

Bones: According to research published in the journal Cancer, 60% of metastatic breast cancer patients experience bone or joint pain that gets worse over a period of time. This largely happens in the hip or lower back. This could be particularly challenging for those patients, who have arthritis or chronic pain otherwise. Some also find out that they have metastatic breast cancer, after they break their bones, because of an injury or fall. 

metastatic cancer
Breast cancer is even more common than lung cancer now. Image courtesy: Shutterstock

Abdomen or liver: When it reaches the liver, it could appear to be similar to the stomach and gastrointestinal issues. In most cases, the patient will suffer from abdominal pain, nausea, and vomiting. In extreme cases, they could also have jaundice.

Also, read: Can wearing an underwire bra cause breast cancer? A gynaecologist busts the myth

Lungs: In the case of the liver, there are hardly any symptoms, until the disease reaches an advanced stage. Dry cough and shortness of breath could be a few signs. 

Brain: Metastatic breast cancer doesn’t often spread to the brain; it is more common with triple-negative breast cancer. When it happens, symptoms can include headaches, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, or trouble standing or walking, 

How is metastatic breast cancer diagnosed?

An early-stage breast cancer diagnosis can happen through mammography. Often, it is followed with an ultrasound or MRI, and then a biopsy, to confirm that it is breast cancer and not a benign mass. In the case of metastatic breast cancer, a patient usually has already been diagnosed with and treated for breast cancer. So, the diagnosis typically is in response to new symptoms.  

Geetika Sachdev Geetika Sachdev

An independent writer and journalist, Geetika loves sharp and fresh humour, just like her coffee! If not writing, you'll find her cafe-hopping and raiding the best book stores in town.