Health Care

Metastatic Breast Cancer Explained: What Happens When Cancer Spreads?

A Small Child Smiles and Touches Her Mother's Face While Sitting in a Window.

Choose the health content that’s right for you, and get it delivered right in your inbox.

With the sad news of Olivia Newton-John’s passing at age 73, we hope to spread awareness about the chronic breast cancer that she lived with for 30 years. The talented singer and film icon who sparkled on the screen was vocal about her long-term battle with breast cancer that was initially diagnosed in 1992. The cancer returned several times throughout her life and metastasized, which means it spread to other parts of her body. This is called metastatic breast cancer.

As we join in offering our condolences to Olivia Newton-John’s family and all who loved her, read about what she advocated for three decades to help women around the world: education on metastatic breast cancer including learning its symptoms and available treatment options.

Have hope. With treatment, metastatic breast cancer can be controlled so you can continue living your best life possible. Devina McCray, MD, an AdventHealth breast surgical oncologist, is here to explain more.

What is Metastatic Breast Cancer?

According to the National Cancer Institute, metastatic breast cancer is breast cancer that has spread to other parts of the body, most often the bones, lungs, liver or brain. It’s also called stage 4 or advanced breast cancer. It happens when cancer cells travel from the original tumor via the lymphatic system or blood.

“Usually, spreading cancer cells die somewhere in the process. But when conditions favor the abnormal cells and the immune system can’t stop the metastasis, some of them can form new tumors in other parts of the body,” says Dr. McCray. Metastatic cancer cells can remain inactive for many years before they begin to grow again, if at all.”

Cancer can spread to any part of the body from its original location. In Newton-John’s case, she found a cancerous lump in her shoulder in 2013 and discovered that the cancer had spread to her sacrum in 2017.

Dr. McCray clarifies, “A cancer that starts in the breast and spreads to another part of the body will continue to be called by and treated as the cancer of its origin. If cancer starts in the breast and spreads to the brain, for instance, it would be called metastatic (or stage 4) breast cancer, indicating it started in the breast and metastasized.”

Sometimes doctors can’t determine where the cancer originated if it has already spread at the time of diagnosis. In this case, it would be called “cancer of unknown primary origin (CUP).”

Symptoms of Metastatic Breast Cancer

Metastatic breast cancer symptoms can vary depending on the cancer’s location and where it spreads, but symptoms may include:

  • Abdominal pain and/or bloating
  • Back, bone or joint pain that doesn’t go away
  • Chest pain
  • Confusion
  • Constant dry cough
  • Difficulty urinating
  • Frequent nausea and/or vomiting
  • Jaundice
  • Loss of appetite
  • Loss of balance
  • Numbness or weakness anywhere in your body
  • Seizures
  • Severe headaches and vision problems including blurry vision, double vision or vision loss
  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • Weight loss

Dr. McCray recommends, “If you have a history of breast cancer and notice new or worsening symptoms of metastatic breast cancer, be sure to reach out to your health care provider for support. They may recommend further testing.”

Treating Metastatic Breast Cancer

Metastatic cancers don’t totally go away even with treatment. Therefore, metastatic breast cancer is often thought of as a chronic illness that needs constant observation and treatment to improve patients’ quality of life and extend their lives.

Even though metastatic breast cancer can’t be completely cured, treating it can:

  • Extend your life
  • Relieve symptoms
  • Shrink the tumor(s)
  • Slow the cancer’s growth

There are several different approaches to treating metastatic breast cancer. Every cancer is unique, and we can personalize your treatment plan based on your specific circumstances.

“Doctors usually treat metastatic breast cancer in any part of the body with systemic medications, which treat cancer throughout the whole body,” says Dr. McCray. “Chemotherapy, hormonal therapy, targeted therapies and immunotherapy are all systemic medications. Local treatments that target a specific part of the body, such as surgery or radiation, are sometimes used depending on your circumstances.”

Being able to live your best life possible with breast cancer through treatment can make a world of difference for you on your journey. Many metastatic breast cancer patients live long lives when their cancer is properly treated and well-controlled.

We Treat the Whole You

In a perfect world, we would catch every cancer at its earliest stage when it’s most treatable, curing it so you don’t have to spare another thought following your recovery. But we understand that life doesn’t always work that way. Out of 3.8 million breast cancer survivors in the United States, about 168,000 are living with metastatic breast cancer.

“Continue getting your regular, yearly breast cancer screenings as the best method to catch cancer as early as possible in order to start treating you quickly if need be,” advises Dr. McCray.

While it may not be possible to cure your metastatic breast cancer, we can help you manage it and support you every step of the way with our world-renowned team of oncologists, physicians, counselors, wellness experts and more.

Learn more about our Cancer Care program and how we can care for you in body, mind and spirit. We’re in this together.

Recent Blogs

Doctor feeling the neck of a woman to check her thyroid.
Thyroid Function Tests Could Help Millions of Americans
Man drinking water from a bottle.
Protecting Your Heart in the Heat
How Noise Colors Can Impact Your Sleep Quality
Man sleeping on his side in a bed.
Why We Get Sleepy After Eating
Eyelash Health: Everything You Wanted to Know
View More Articles