Updated: Mar 3
Cancer is a battle but having metastatic breast cancer doesn’t mean you have lost it. The truth is getting diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer can be devastating, for you and everyone else in your life. It can feel like you are at the end of the line but in reality, with the advancements in medicine, you can live years after your diagnosis. In this blog, we will share what it is, what its symptoms are, the different options you can pick after your diagnosis, and the survival rate. Even If you or your loved one is diagnosed with this disease it is always good to be informed.
What is metastatic breast cancer?
Metastatic breast cancer also known as stage 4 is the most advanced stage of breast cancer. People with this diagnosis have breast cancer spread to other parts of the body, including the bones, brain, liver, and lungs. Metastatic breast cancer is still identified as breast cancer, even if it has spread to other places.
There are two types of metastases: Regional metastatic breast cancer and distant metastatic breast cancer. Regional metastatic breast cancer is when cancer spreads to the nearby lymph nodes. In distant metastatic breast cancer, cells can invade healthy cells by traveling through blood vessels. It migrates to a distant location such as your lungs and creates small tumors called micrometastases.
Symptoms of metastatic breast cancer?
There are multiple symptoms of metastatic breast cancer, and they can be different for every patient. The reason for this difference is that wherever cancer has spread, brings out its own symptoms. These symptoms alone do not mean you have metastatic breast cancer but if you are experiencing one or some of them it would be best for you to contact your doctor.
Pain is one of the most common and distressing symptoms for cancer patients. If you are experiencing pain in your bones, it can mean that cancer has spread to your bones or spinal cord. The pain may be caused by either tissue damage or dysfunction of the nervous system. Symptoms of metastatic breast cancer in the bones include fractures and high levels of calcium in the blood.
Breast cancer is one of the most common cancers that can develop the leptomeningeal disease. It means that the membranes that cover your brain and spinal cord, and your cerebrospinal fluid got affected by cancer. 3% to 5% of women who have breast cancer are at risk of developing the leptomeningeal disease.
Headaches and dizziness
The most common symptoms of cancer spreading to the brain are headaches, dizziness, seizures, and memory problems. Also, double or blurred vision can be a sign of breast cancer metastasizing.
There are many possible causes of chest pain in metastatic breast cancer patients, and an accurate diagnosis requires a thorough evaluation. If it is accompanied by symptoms like shortness of breath, coughing, and fatigue, it can mean that cancer has spread through your lungs.
Cancer may have spread to the liver If you are experiencing nausea and fatigue. Also, cancer in the liver can show itself on the skin, giving it a yellowish color. Experiencing swelling in your feet and hands is quite common.
How is metastatic breast cancer diagnosed?
Diagnosing metastatic breast cancer is the first step of the way, it is very important to determine what comes next. This is how doctors discover which treatment would be the most suitable. In most cases, more than one of these tests is done on the patient.
The first option is a blood test, this way doctors test for biomarkers, serum chemistry that determines underlying conditions, and an assessment of your bone marrow. It calculates the chemicals emitted by your organs and tissues; the amount of this chemical could indicate an illness.
Other exams include a bone scan, ultrasound, MRI, biopsy, and x-ray. These imaging tests help determine which parts of the body the breast cancer has spread.
What are the treatment options for metastatic breast cancer?
What you may have not heard about metastatic breast cancer is that it is terminal. Even though the medicine is not advanced enough to cure it, there are treatment options. The treatments are to shrink the tumors and to help patients have a longer life with minimum side effects. It is different for every patient according to how much cancer has spread and their expectancies.
There are many treatment options for metastatic breast cancer, which can include radiation, chemotherapy, hormone therapy, and biological therapy. Treatment may change as one therapy stops working or the side effects become too uncomfortable.
Chemotherapy for metastatic breast cancer
These treatments aim to shrink tumors and slow their growth. They also help ease symptoms and improve quality of life. Some doctors can suggest chemotherapy to shrink tumors and help make the patient’s life expectancy longer. In some cases, it may not work but it is possible to use different drug combinations.
Targeted therapy for metastatic breast cancer
Targeted therapy is a treatment that targets breast cancer cell proteins and stunts their growth or destroys them. This treatment is different than chemotherapy, it can have side effects also it comes in different forms such as pills and injections.
Hormonal therapy for metastatic breast cancer
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to metastatic breast cancer treatment. It is quite common for more than one therapy to be applied to one patient. Estrogen hormones help cancer cells grow therefore using estrogen-blocking medication can help stunt the growth of cancer cells.
Radiation therapy for metastatic breast cancer
Radiation therapy is not typically used for metastatic breast cancer, but it can be recommended in specific cases. The main reason radiation therapy is used is to minimize the symptoms caused by cancer.
Surgery for metastatic breast cancer
Surgery is not typically recommended for metastatic breast cancer but recent developments show that can be helpful in some cases. It increases the survival rate and offers more time to patients.
Clinical trials for metastatic breast cancer
Clinical trials are when patients volunteer to try a new drug that can be a cure for their diseases. They are necessary to advance medicine and the best chance to treat the untreatable. Some metastatic breast cancer patients try clinical trials as a way of treatment.
Supportive care for metastatic breast cancer
Treatment options for metastatic breast cancer include eating a nutritious diet, exercising regularly, managing stress, getting emotional support from friends and family, and finding complementary therapies. Many people do better when they get support after a diagnosis for example support groups can provide patients with emotional support and practical tips.
Metastatic breast cancer is a difficult and often overwhelming disease, your negative feelings toward your diagnosis can be minimized by working with a licensed cancer psychologist.
Palliative care for metastatic breast cancer
Palliative care is about managing symptoms regardless of the stage of cancer a patient is in. A structured palliative care approach can improve survival in patients with metastatic breast cancer. It usually tries to help patients’ bodies and emotions, they are getting the help of medication and therapy at the same time.
Hospice care for metastatic breast cancer
Treatment may also stop working due to side effects, and in this case, hospice care may be the best option for the person. Hospice care helps patients live comfortably for the rest of their days. Their needs are provided for, and they have company that can help with the transition. The thought of living your final days is scary but healthcare professionals help through the acceptance of the harsh reality.
The survival rate of advanced breast cancer
The survival rate for metastatic breast cancer patients depends on how far cancer has spread. While the five-year relative survival rate for regional metastatic breast cancer is 86% in distant metastatic breast cancer this rate is 29%.
The survival rate can change depending on the individual's treatment plan, age, other health conditions, and how much cancer has spread.