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Symptoms of metastatic breast cancer

Symptoms of metastatic breast cancer can be diverse. The most common places affected include the lymph nodes, bones, liver, lungs and brain, though not all cancers will spread to all of these places.

It’s important to note the following:Symptoms of metastatic breast cancer can appear in the lymph nodes, bones, liver, lungs and brain.

  • 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

Below you can find more details about the different symptoms caused by metastatic breast cancer.

General symptoms of metastatic breast cancer

Some women may experience general symptoms that will be similar to colds or the ‘flu’, such as:

  • being more tired than usual
  • low energy levels
  • feeling under the weather, and
  • having a poor appetite

Remember: if you have been treated for breast cancer, discuss any new pain with your doctor or breast care nurse.

Symptoms of metastatic cancer in the lymph nodes

If breast cancer cells have spread, they can usually be found in the lymph nodes around the armpit. The most common symptom results in a firm, often painless, swelling. As breast cancer cells can spread to lymph nodes in other parts of the body, you may find symptoms of this as follows:

  • a swelling under your arm
  • a lump/swelling behind the breastbone or above/below the collar bones

Remember: it’s important to let your specialist or breast care nurse know if you find symptoms of swelling or lumps in any of these areas.

Symptoms of metastatic cancer spread to 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 of cancer in the bone is usually a constant ache or pain in the bone. The pain can get worse during movement and can make it difficult to sleep at night.

Metastatic cancer in the bone may damage the part of the bone affected by cancer cells: the more the bone is damaged, the weaker it gets. Pain and weakness can make it hard to move around, and a very weak bone may break more easily too.

Sometimes when bones are damaged by metastatic cancer, the bone cells 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, and treatment can be started long before the bone becomes weak enough to break or cause a lot of pain.

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Symptoms of metastatic cancer in the liver

Common symptoms of cancer having spread to the liver include:

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

The liver has a lot of functions in the body, such as making bile to help digest food in the intestine. If the drainage channels leading from the liver are blocked by metastatic cancer, bile may build up in the blood. This causes jaundice, where the skin and whites of the eyes become yellow and your skin may feel itchy.

The liver can still work well when part of it, or even most of it, is affected by cancer cells. Symptoms can usually be well controlled too.

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Symptoms of metastatic cancer in the lungs

Some of the first symptoms of cancer in the lungs can be:

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

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 and women notice quite a change in their breathing if this happens.

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 spread to the brain

The idea of metastatic cancer affecting the brain can be very frightening, but fortunately the brain can work well even if part of it is affected by cancer.

Metastatic breast cancer in the brain can cause different symptoms, depending on which part of the brain is affected, including:

  • 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 or your vision may become blurred. Cancer in the brain can also cause seizures (fits). In rare cases, cancer in the brain can cause confusion or a change in behaviour or personality.

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Further information about Stage 4 – Metastatic Breast Cancer can be found here on our site.