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Stage 4 (Advanced or Metastatic) Breast Cancer

Advanced breast cancer (also known as metastatic, secondary or stage IV breast cancer) refers to cancer that has spread (or metastasised) beyond the breast to other parts of the body. Common places of breast cancer spread include the bones, liver, lung, and brain. However, breast cancer may also spread to other organs.
The majority of those diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer have been diagnosed with an earlier stage of breast cancer before. However, for some, a diagnosis of metastatic breast cancer may be their first diagnosis of cancer (this is also called de novo metastatic breast cancer).

Symptoms of metastatic (advanced) breast cancer

Possible symptoms of advanced breast cancer are listed below. Symptoms will depend on the part(s) of the body affected and may develop over weeks/months.

For example:

  • If breast cancer has spread to the bone, symptoms may include a constant ache or pain in the bones. The pain may get worse during movement and make it difficult to sleep at night.
  • If breast cancer has spread to the liver, symptoms may include loss of appetite, pain in the area of the liver (the right side of the belly) or jaundice (yellowing of the skin or whites of the eyes).
  • If breast cancer has spread to the lung, symptoms may include shortness of breath, a dry cough, chest pain or a feeling of heaviness in the chest.
  • If breast cancer has spread to the brain, symptoms may include persistent headaches, nausea (feeling sick), vomiting, seizures (fits), blurred vision, weakness in part of the body or a change in personality.

When identifying symptoms, it is important to note many of the listed symptoms are common and may not be related to breast cancer at all. For example, bone pain may be a sign of arthritis, and a cough may be a symptom of a cold or flu.

However, if you are concerned about any of these symptoms, or if symptoms persist, it is recommended that you discuss them with your doctor to determine the cause as soon as possible.

Coping with advanced breast cancer

Being told that you have advanced or metastatic breast cancer may be very confronting or overwhelming. Some women also find the news that their cancer has spread or come back is more devastating than their original diagnosis. Cancer Council and Breast Cancer Network Australia have further resources for emotional and practical support of women diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer. Cancer Australia also has further information on finding support, and managing the emotional, physical and practical issues arising from metastatic breast cancer.

Treatment for advanced breast cancer

Treatment of metastatic breast cancer aims to control the growth and spread of the cancer, to relieve symptoms, reduce pain, and improve or maintain quality of life.
Treatment options for metastatic breast cancer are similar to primary breast cancer, and can include surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, hormonal therapy and/or targeted therapy, depending on the location and molecular makeup of the cancer. Treatment may shrink or slow the growth of tumours, ease symptoms and help women live longer.

metastatic breast cancer

Research into advanced and metastatic breast cancer

Unfortunately, cancer cells often become more difficult to treat and may develop drug resistance once they spread. According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW), the 5-year survival rate for metastatic breast cancer is 32%, compared to the 91% on average for all breast cancer patients. It is not possible to predict the exact course of disease for any individual. New treatments also continue to be developed and some women live with metastatic breast cancer for many years.

However, metastatic breast cancer is the leading cause of death from breast cancer. NBCF is committed to funding a broad spectrum of research that helps to further understand breast cancer metastasis, develop improved treatment options and enhance patient quality of life for those with metastatic breast cancer.