According to the National Cancer Institute, more than 150,000 women in the United States are living with metastatic breast cancer (MBC), and three in four of them has initially been diagnosed with an earlier stage of breast cancer.

Read on to learn more about MBC, symptoms, diagnosis and treatment.


WHAT IS METASTATIC BREAST CANCER?

Cancer begins when abnormal cells divide uncontrollably and destroy body tissue.

MBC, also known as stage IV, is breast cancer that can spread to any part of the body. It often spreads to the bones, lungs, brain and liver. MBC can develop when breast cancer cells break away from the primary tumor and enter the bloodstream or lymphatic system. These systems carry fluid throughout the body. The cancer cells are able to travel in the fluids far from the original tumor, which causes the cells to settle and grow in different parts of the body and form new tumors.

Some people have MBC when they are first diagnosed with breast cancer, which is called de novo metastatic. This means that the cancer in the breasts was not detected before it spread to another part of the body.

SYMPTOMS AND SIGNS

The symptoms and signs of MBC can vary depending on the location of the cancer.

Bone metastasis

  • Bone, neck, back and joint pain
  • Bone fractures
  • Swelling
  • Often spreads to the ribs, spine, pelvis or the long bones in the arms or legs

Brain metastasis

  • Headache
  • Seizures
  • Dizziness
  • Changes in vision or speech
  • Loss of balance

Lung metastasis

  • Shortness of breath
  • Difficulty in breathing
  • Constant dry cough
  • Pain or discomfort in lungs

Liver metastasis

  • Yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes, known as jaundice
  • Itchy skin or rash
  • Pain or swelling in the stomach
  • Weight loss or poor appetite
  • Vomiting or nausea

If you are concerned about the changes you are experiencing, talk to your doctor. Your doctor will ask how long and how often you have been experiencing the symptoms, which will help for diagnosis.

 

DIAGNOSIS

Diagnostic scans are performed to find out if you have MBC and progression of metastatic tumors. The most typical scans are:

Bone scans

Bone scans reveal if cancer has spread to the bones. To perform a bone scan, your doctor will inject dye, then wait a few hours for it to move through the bloodstream so it can be visible in the scan.

Chest X-ray

A chest X-ray may reveal if breast cancer has spread to the lungs. Metastases in the lungs can cause shortness of breath or a constant cough.

Computerized Tomography or Computerized Axial Tomography (CT/CAT scan)

This scan provided a more detailed x-ray of the body to look for metastases in the brain, lungs or liver. Before the scan, you will ingest a dye or have it injected into a vein. The dye will highlight specific areas of the brain more clearly.

Liver scan

A liver scan involves having dye injected into a vein. They dye will collect in areas where there is activity that may indicate cancer growth.

MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging)

You will receive an injection of dye before an MRI. Then you will lie down in a tube-like machine that uses radio waves and a powerful magnet to take a 3D picture of your body.

PET scan (Positron Emission Tomography)

This scan monitors the use of glucose, a source of energy, throughout the body. Cancer cells use more glucose than normal cells. Before the scan, you will have a tracer, radioactive glucose, injected into a vein. A computer takes images to look for areas using the most glucose.

Positron-Emission Tomography (PET) CT scan

This scan is a combination of a PET and CT scan, which performed at the same time, can present a more detailed image of the presence or extent of cancer in the body.

Complete blood count (CBC)

A CBC measures the number of different types of cells, such as red and white blood cells, by testing a sample of a person’s blood. It is done to make sure that your bone marrow is functioning well.

 

TREATMENT FOR MBC

After a diagnosis of MBC, there are several types of treatment that are the standard of care for MBC.

Surgery

Surgery is the removal of a tumor during operation. Surgery is not often used to treat MBC, however, doctors may recommend surgery to remove a tumor that is causing discomfort. Surgery, if used by itself or with radiation therapy, can be an option for cancer that has spread to the brain.

Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy is the use of drugs to damage or destroy the cancer cells, ending the cells ability to grow and divide. Chemotherapy can be given on many different schedules. It can be given once a week, once every two weeks, once every three weeks or once every four weeks. The best chemotherapy depends on the patient’s previous treatment, potential side effects, patients overall health and the patients preferences.

Radiation therapy

Radiation therapy is the use of high-energy x-rays to kill cancer cells. The most common type of radiation treatment is called external-beam radiation therapy, which is radiation given from a machine outside the body. When radiation is given by placing radioactive sources into the tumor, it is called brachytherapy.

Radiation therapy is used to shrink or slow tumor growth. Several types of radiation therapy are used to treat brain metastases:

  • Whole brain therapy is directed at the entire brain.
  • Stereotactic radiosurgery is the use of a single, high dose of radiation given directly to the tumor to avoid harming the surrounding healthy tissues.
  • Fractionated stereotactic radiation therapy is similar to stereotactic radiosurgery but divided into small daily doses called fractions that are given over multiple days or weeks, in contrast to one day radiosurgery.

Hormonal therapy

Hormonal therapy, also called endocrine therapy, is used to help shrink or slow the growth of hormone-receptor-positive metastatic breast cancer. The goal of this therapy is to lower the levels of estrogen and progesterone in the body or to block these hormones from getting to cancer cells.

The choice for hormonal therapy depends on if a woman is still menstruating or has gone through menopause.

Targeted therapy

Targeted therapies target specific characteristics of cancer cells, such as a protein, genes or the tissue environment that contributes to cancer growth and survival. This treatment blocks the growth and spread of cancer while limiting damage to healthy cells.


WOMEN’S HEALTHCARE OF MORGANTOWN | METASTATIC BREAST CANCER

Metastatic Breast Cancer

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Breast Cancer Awareness is an annual international health campaign organized by major breast cancer charities to increase awareness and raise funds for prevention, diagnosis, treatment, research and more. 

At Women’s Healthcare of Morgantown, we are dedicated to serving our patients and making sure you feel comfortable throughout this process.

If you are experiencing any of the symptoms listed above, schedule an appointment with one of our doctors. These could be signs of metastatic breast cancer.