What Is A Normal Breast
No breast is typical. What is normal for you may not be normal for another woman. Most women say their breasts feel lumpy or uneven. The way your breasts look and feel can be affected by getting your period, having children, losing or gaining weight, and taking certain medications. Breasts also tend to change as you age. For more information, see the National Cancer Institutes Breast Changes and Conditions.external icon
Diagnosing Metastatic Breast Cancer
Getting a clear picture of where breast cancer has spread is essential for creating a personalized treatment plan. Your care team will likely use a combination of the following tests and tools to diagnose both localized and advanced breast cancer:
Ultrasound exam: With this imaging technique, sound waves create a picture of internal areas of the body.
Magnetic resonance imaging : This procedure produces detailed images using magnetic fields and radio waves.
Blood chemistry studies: A blood sample is taken to measure the amounts of certain substances that are released by your organs and tissues. A higher or lower amount of a particular substance may be a sign of disease.
Breast biopsy: A biopsy is the removal of cells or tissues so a pathologist may view them through a microscope. Your original breast cancer diagnosis was likely confirmed with a biopsy.
What Are The Differences Between Metastatic Breast Cancer Stage 4 Breast Cancer And Advanced Cancer
“Most of us use the names stage 4 and metastatic interchangeably,” Henry says. “Advanced is a little more complicated. Sometimes you will see the word ‘advanced’ used to describe metastatic cancer. But sometimes you will see the term ‘locally advanced.’ That means there’s a lot of cancer in the surrounding lymph nodes, but it doesn’t necessarily mean we see cancer that has spread outside of the area. We tend to stay away from the word ‘advanced’ because there can be confusion.”
If any doctor uses the term “advanced,” ask for clarification, Henry adds.
Every patient is different. In most cases, it arises months or years after a person has completed treatment for the initial breast cancer diagnosis, Henry says.
But some patients will learn they have metastatic breast cancer when first diagnosed, a term known as de novo metastatic breast cancer, Henry says. Only 6% of women and 8% of men receive a de novo metastatic diagnosis, according to Komen.
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Progression During Hormone Therapy
For hormone receptor-positive cancers that were being treated with hormone therapy, switching to another type of hormone therapy sometimes helps. For example, if either letrozole or anastrozole were given, using exemestane, possibly with everolimus , may be an option. Another option might be using fulvestrant or a different aromatase inhibitor, along with a CDK inhibitor. If the cancer has a PIK3CA mutation and has grown while being treated with an aromatase inhibitor, fulvestrant with alpelisib might be considered. If the cancer is no longer responding to any hormone drugs, chemotherapy immunotherapy, or PARP inhibitors might be options depending on specific features of the cancer or any gene changes that might be present.
Stomach Upset Loss Of Appetite And Weight Loss
It can be more difficult to eat a healthy diet as these symptoms occur, setting up a vicious cycle. As women avoid certain foods because of stomach upset, the digestive system may lack the fiber and nutrients it needs to function optimally.
Over time, women may lose their appetite and have difficulty taking in the calories they need. Not eating regularly may cause significant weight loss and nutritional imbalances.
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When Do People Get A Metastatic Breast Cancer Diagnosis
Metastatic breast cancer can occur at different points:
- De novo metastatic breast cancer: About 6% of women and 9% of men have metastatic breast cancer when theyre first diagnosed with breast cancer.
- Distant recurrence: Most commonly, metastatic breast cancer is diagnosed after the original breast cancer treatment. A recurrence refers to the cancer coming back and spreading to a different part of the body, which can happen even years after the original diagnosis and treatment.
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.
The treatment recommended by doctors will depend on which treatments are likely to control the breast cancer and what side effects the person can cope with. Treatment options may involve:
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Can Metastatic Breast Cancer Be Cured
There is no cure for metastatic breast cancer. Once the cancer cells have spread to another distant area of the body, its impossible to get rid of them all. However, the right treatment plan can help extend your life and improve its quality.
Metastatic breast cancer treatment aims to shrink tumors, slow their growth and improve your symptoms.
When To See A Doctor
If a person is experiencing any symptoms of breast cancer, they should visit a doctor immediately.
Screening is essential for catching and treating breast cancer during the early stages.
- imaging procedures, such as a mammogram
- genetic testing for at-risk groups
Regular screening is especially vital if a person has certain genetic mutations or a personal or family history of cancer.
A person with stage 4 breast cancer will usually already have a team of doctors working to treat the disease and reduce symptoms. They should report any new symptoms to a doctor as soon as possible.
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What Is Metastatic Breast Cancer
Metastatic breast cancer is the most advanced stage of breast cancer. Breast cancer develops when abnormal cells in the breast start to divide uncontrollably. A tumor is a mass or collection of these abnormal cells.
Metastasis refers to cancer cells that have spread to a new area of the body. In metastatic breast cancer, cells may spread to the:
Healthcare providers name cancer based on its primary origin. That means breast cancer that spreads to other body parts is still considered breast cancer. The cancer cells are still breast cancer cells. Your care team will use breast cancer therapies, even if the cancer cells are in other areas.
Is Stage 4 Breast Cancer Painful
Stage iv metastatic breast cancer can be painful for patients similar to other cancer types. Because the prognosis of metastatic cancer is often less favorable, many patients question is stage 4 breast cancer painful? It depends on several factors such as, where the cancer has and what type of cells are being affected. For example, if the cancer has spread to the bone, patients may experience persistent bone pain. Palliative treatments can be given to patients to help relieve symptoms such as pain. These treatments can include chemotherapy, hormone therapy, or radiation therapy.
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Additional Markers For Breast Cancer Staging
Additional markers specific to breast cancer will further define your stage, which may be helpful in choosing targeted treatments to fight the cancer.
- ER: The cancer has an estrogen receptor. Estrogen is a hormone, and some cancers have receptors that respond to estrogen.
- PR: The cancer has a progesterone receptor. Progesterone is also a hormone.
- HER2: The cancer makes the protein HER2 .
- G: Grade of cancer refers to how different the cells look from normal. Grade 1 indicates that the cells look fairly normal, while grade 2 cells are growing a little faster, and grade 3 cells look markedly different than normal breast tissue.
These markers, along with the TNM measurements, define your stage.
A cancer recurrence refers to cancer that returns in the same breast, and it requires new staging. This new stage is marked by an R at the end to indicate restaging. If it develops in the other breast, its considered a new cancer.
What If A Patient Sees The Term Metastatic On An Online Pathology Report Before Seeing The Oncologist Does That Mean They Have Stage 4
“Because we have electronic medical records now, and everyone has fairly early access to documents like pathology reports, it can cause a lot of anxiety and be very confusing to a patient,” Henry says. “Sometimes a pathology report may say ‘metastatic to lymph node.’ But that may not mean it is stage 4.” It may simply mean the cancer has spread to an adjacent lymph node. Henry emphasizes that patients should talk to their doctor to understand their diagnosis.
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When Can Metastatic Breast Cancer Occur
Most often, metastatic breast cancer arises months or years after a person has completed treatment for early or locally advanced breast cancer. This is sometimes called a distant recurrence.
Some people have metastatic breast cancer when they are first diagnosed . This is called de novo metastatic breast cancer.
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What Does It Mean To Have Stage 4 Breast Cancer
Stage 4 breast cancer means that the cancer has spread to other areas of the body, such as the brain, bones, lung and liver.
Although Stage 4 breast cancer is not curable, it is usually treatable and current advances in research and medical technology mean that more and more women are living longer by managing the disease as a chronic illness with a focus on quality of life as a primary goal. With excellent care and support, as well as personal motivation, Stage 4 breast cancer may respond to a number of treatment options that can extend your life for several years.
What Hope Do You Give Patients With Metastatic Breast Cancer
“We have seen quite a number of medications approved in the last few years. And we know that there are more medications being reviewed by the FDA for consideration of approval in the next few years.” Henry says. “It’s an exciting time in oncology to have all these new treatments being developed.
“I always stress to patients that I want to do everything I can to help them live as long as they can, while still maintaining quality of life, allowing them to do the things they want to do. We do our best to make sure that we adjust treatment schedules to allow people to attend graduations or family reunions, or a trip they want to be able to take,” explains Henry.
“We want to help them look forward.”
Continue learning about breast cancer, metastatic cancer and the people who live with it
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How Is Metastatic Breast Cancer Treated
The main treatment for metastatic breast cancer is systemic therapy. These therapies treat the entire body. Systemic treatments may include a combination of:
Your care team will plan your treatment based on:
- Body parts cancer has reached.
- Past breast cancer treatments.
- Tumor biology, or how the cancer cells look and behave.
Stage Iii Breast Cancer
In stage III, the cancer has spread farther in the breast, or the tumor is larger. This stage includes three subcategories:
Stage IIIA involves one of the following:
- Cancer is found in four to nine nearby lymph nodes, with or without a tumor in the breast.
- A breast tumor is larger than 50 mm, and the cancer has spread to between one and three nearby lymph nodes.
In stage IIIB, the tumor has spread to the chest wall behind the breast, and:
- Cancer may have spread to the skin, causing swelling or inflammation.
- Cancer may have broken through the skin, causing a wound.
- Cancer may have spread to as many as nine lymph nodes under the arm or nodes near the breastbone.
In stage IIIC, with or without a tumor in the breast, the cancer has spread to one of the following places:
- Ten or more underarm lymph nodes
- Lymph nodes near the collarbone
- Some underarm lymph nodes and lymph nodes near the breastbone
- The skin of the breast
In stage III, the patient may experience similar symptoms as stage II, listed earlier. The five-year survival rate for stage III breast cancer is 66% to 98%.
Note: For stages 0 to III, the goal is to cure the cancer and to keep it from coming back, Henry says. “The higher the stage, the more likely the cancer is to come back.”
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Poor Appetite And Weight Loss
Sometimes people with secondary breast cancer cant eat as much as usual. This means they have difficulty maintaining their weight as well as providing the body with energy. Low energy levels can affect mobility and might make it harder to manage any symptoms such as breathlessness.
Poor appetite can be due to the effects of the cancer, treatment or anxiety. A small number of people may have difficulty swallowing.
You might find it easier to eat little and often instead of having set meals. If you still feel you arent eating enough, are losing weight or have no interest in food, talk to your doctor or specialist nurse about dietary supplements or ask to speak to a dietitian for specialist advice.
In some circumstances you may be prescribed medication to help stimulate your appetite.
N Categories For Breast Cancer
N followed by a number from 0 to 3 indicates whether the cancer has spread to lymph nodes near the breast and, if so, how many lymph nodes are involved.
Lymph node staging for breast cancer is based on how the nodes look under the microscope, and has changed as technology has gotten better. Newer methods have made it possible to find smaller and smaller groups of cancer cells, but experts haven’t been sure how much these tiny deposits of cancer cells influence outlook.
Its not yet clear how much cancer in the lymph node is needed to see a change in outlook or treatment. This is still being studied, but for now, a deposit of cancer cells must contain at least 200 cells or be at least 0.2 mm across for it to change the N stage. An area of cancer spread that is smaller than 0.2 mm doesn’t change the stage, but is recorded with abbreviations that indicate the type of special test used to find the spread.
If the area of cancer spread is at least 0.2 mm , but still not larger than 2 mm, it is called a micrometastasis . Micrometastases are counted only if there aren’t any larger areas of cancer spread. Areas of cancer spread larger than 2 mm are known to influence outlook and do change the N stage. These larger areas are sometimes called macrometastases, but are more often just called metastases.
NX: Nearby lymph nodes cannot be assessed .
N0: Cancer has not spread to nearby lymph nodes.
N1c: Both N1a and N1b apply.
N3: Any of the following:
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Will I Need More Than One Treatment For Metastatic Breast Cancer
Medications are important for metastatic breast cancer to help control its spread. Resistance to therapies may develop, which can lead your care team to recommend a change in treatment.
When you start a treatment regimen, you and your care team will see how:
- The cancer responds to the therapy.
- The side effects impact you.
If the treatment isnt working or the side effects are unbearable, your care team can discuss switching the treatment method. They may recommend a different drug, dosage or schedule.
There are many treatments available. If one therapy isnt working for you for whatever reason, there is usually another one you can try.
How Is The Stage Determined
The staging system most often used for breast cancer is the American Joint Committee on Cancer TNM system. The most recent AJCC system, effective January 2018, has both clinical and pathologic staging systems for breast cancer:
- The pathologic stage is determined by examining tissue removed during an operation.
- Sometimes, if surgery is not possible right away or at all, the cancer will be given a clinical stage instead. This is based on the results of a physical exam, biopsy, and imaging tests. The clinical stage is used to help plan treatment. Sometimes, though, the cancer has spread further than the clinical stage estimates, and may not predict the patients outlook as accurately as a pathologic stage.
In both staging systems, 7 key pieces of information are used:
- The extent of the tumor : How large is the cancer? Has it grown into nearby areas?
- The spread to nearby lymph nodes : Has the cancer spread to nearby lymph nodes? If so, how many?
- The spread to distant sites : Has the cancer spread to distant organs such as the lungs or liver?
- Estrogen Receptor status: Does the cancer have the protein called an estrogen receptor?
- Progesterone Receptor status: Does the cancer have the protein called a progesterone receptor?
- HER2 status: Does the cancer make too much of a protein called HER2?
- Grade of the cancer : How much do the cancer cells look like normal cells?
In addition, Oncotype Dx® Recurrence Score results may also be considered in the stage in certain situations.
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