When a cancer diagnosis is made, a determination of the stage of cancer needs to be made. This helps to inform treatment decisions and understand the prognosis for a particular patient.
The stage is based on the extent of the spread of the tumor, with different stages being assigned for different severities of spread.
● Stage 1: Cancer is limited to the original site.
● Stage 2: Cancer has begun to spread beyond the original site, but it is still localized.
● Stage 3: Cancer affects nearby tissues or lymph nodes.
● Stage 4: Cancer has spread to distant sites in the body.
Although only 6% of breast cancer cases are classified as stage 4 at the time of diagnosis, nearly one-third of all breast cancers eventually metastasize and become stage 4.
Here are 5 common places where breast cancer can spread:
As a tumor grows, there is a potential that a few cancer cells may break off from the main tumor and travel to other parts of the body. They can travel through the bloodstream or, more commonly, through the lymphatic system.
Your lymphatic system is a network of nodes and vessels located throughout the body that helps to filter out toxins, waste, and other materials from your body. There is a high concentration of these nodes in your armpit area, and it is common for breast cancer to spread to these surrounding lymph nodes.
Once cancer cells have infiltrated the lymph nodes, they can then travel to more distant parts of your body and form new tumors.
The most common place for breast cancer to spread is the bones, accounting for around 70% of metastatic breast cancer cases. Breast cancer in the bones can manifest in any bone in the body, but it usually shows up in the spine, ribs, pelvis, or the upper bones of the arms and legs.
If breast cancer has spread to the bones, it is still referred to as breast cancer and not bone cancer, as the origin of the tumor is still from the breast.
It can cause symptoms like pain, fractures or breaks in the bone, numbness, and immobility.
Another fairly common area for breast cancer to spread is the liver. This leads to symptoms like gut pain, nausea, appetite changes, and bloating.
Disorders in the liver can also lead to jaundice, which appears as a yellowing of the eyes and skin. This is due to a buildup of bilirubin, a byproduct of the liver’s breakdown of red blood cells.
Breast cancer can also spread to the lungs, leading to persistent coughing, chest pain, shortness of breath, or coughing up blood.
In many cases, the cancer cells in the lungs form small tumors which may not produce noticeable symptoms. Your doctors will likely perform PET or CT scans to check for any signs of cancer in your lungs if they suspect your cancer may spread.
It is less common for breast cancer to spread to the brain, but it does still occur in about 10% of cases.
When this happens, it can cause symptoms like headaches, confusion or difficulty with concentration and memory, balance issues, blurred vision, seizures, and weakness.
Unfortunately, this is also one of the most challenging places for metastatic breast cancer to be treated, as conventional cancer treatments can be limited in their safety or effectiveness due to the damage they can cause to nearby healthy tissue.
Can Metastatic Breast Cancer Be Treated?
When you are diagnosed with breast cancer (or any cancer), your healthcare team will create a treatment plan tailored to your specific needs.
If the original cancer is successfully treated, you will still need to be regularly monitored for any signs of cancer returning or spreading. This typically involves scheduled screenings such as mammograms, ultrasounds, and other tests.
When it comes to metastatic breast cancer, treatment is generally still possible, although it can be more challenging. Treatment will vary depending on the size, location, and stage of the new tumor, but it is important to remember that even if your cancer has spread, it is still usually treatable, especially if it is caught early.
If you have any questions, concerns, or worrying symptoms, it is always best to speak to your doctor for personalized advice and support.