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Symptoms of metastatic breast cancer

Symptoms of metastatic (advanced) breast cancer can be diverse. The most common areas breast cancer can spread to are the lymph nodes, bones, liver, lungs and brain. But not all cancers will spread to these areas.

When identifying symptoms, it’s important to note the following:

  • every woman’s experience of metastatic breast cancer is different;
  • symptoms will depend on what part of the body is affected;
  • symptoms can develop over weeks/months;
  • it’s unlikely that a woman will have all of the symptoms listed on this page; and
  • all new symptoms should be discussed with your doctor or breast care nurse.

General symptoms of metastatic cancer

Some women may experience cold/flu symptoms such as:

  • tiredness;
  • low energy;
  • feeling under the weather; and/or
  • a poor appetite.

Symptoms of metastatic cancer in the lymph nodes

If breast cancer cells have spread, they can most commonly be found in the lymph nodes around the armpit. They can also spread to lymph nodes in other parts of the body. Symptoms of this are:

  • a firm, often painless swelling under your arm; and/or
  • a lump/swelling behind the breastbone or above/below the collar bones.

Symptoms of metastatic cancer in the bone

Bone is the most common place for breast cancer to spread to, usually affecting the spine, ribs, skull, pelvis, or upper bones of the arms and legs. One of the first symptoms is usually a constant ache or pain in the bone. This pain can get worse during movement and make it difficult to sleep at night.

When bones are affected by metastatic cancer cells, they can become damaged. The more the bone is damaged, the weaker it gets. Pain and weakness can make it difficult to move around, and a very weak bone may break more easily. The damaged bone cells may also release calcium into the blood which can cause various symptoms such as:

  • tiredness;
  • nausea;
  • constipation;
  • irritability;
  • thirst; and/or
  • confusion.

Metastatic breast cancer in a bone can be treated. If treated early, it can prevent the bone from becoming weak or painful.

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Symptoms of metastatic breast cancer in the liver

The liver performs many functions, including making bile to assist with digestion. If the drainage channels leading from the liver are blocked by metastatic cancer, bile may build up in the blood. This can causes jaundice, where the skin and whites of the eyes become yellow and the skin may feel itchy.

Other common symptoms of cancer which has spread to the liver include:

  • weight loss;
  • tiredness;
  • discomfort in the area of the liver (on the right side of the abdomen)
  • feeling sick or loss of appetite;
  • swollen abdomen due to a build-up of fluid, with discomfort on the right side of their abdomen; and/or
  • pain, if the cancer presses on the fibrous tissue covering the liver.

The liver can still work well when part of it, or even most of it, is affected by cancer cells. Treatments are available to control symptoms too.

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Symptoms of metastatic cancer in the lungs

Cancer cells on the outside of the lungs can irritate the lining around the lungs and cause discomfort when breathing. Fluid may build up and press on the lungs. If this occurs, there will be a significant change in breathing ability.

Initial symptoms of cancer in the lungs include:

  • shortness of breath;
  • dry cough, and/or
  • chest pain (or a feeling of heaviness in the chest).

Breathing problems can be frightening, but there are ways to treat breathlessness from metastatic breast cancer, which soon make it easier to breathe.

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Symptoms of metastatic cancer in the brain

The idea of metastatic cancer affecting the brain can be very distressing. Fortunately the brain can work well even if part of it is affected by cancer. Symptoms are varied, depending on which part of the brain is affected. Initial symptoms may include:

  • a headache that doesn’t go away (and may be worse in the morning);
  • nausea (feeling sick); and
  • vomiting.

Sometimes cancer in the brain causes changes in the part of the body controlled by that part of the brain. For example, an arm or leg might become weaker. Cancer in the brain can also cause seizures (fits). In rare cases, it can cause confusion or a change in behaviour or personality.