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What is metastatic breast cancer?

Metastatic breast cancer is breast cancer that has spread beyond the breast to other organs in the body, most often the bones, lungs, liver or, less commonly, brain. There are many words used, but they actually mean the same thing.

Metastatic breast cancer is also called:

  • stage IV (4) breast cancer
  • secondary breast cancer
  • advanced breast cancer.

When referring to a specific area or site of metastatic breast cancer, the term secondary is often used — for example a secondary in the bone.

The word metastases is sometimes also used to describe these sites, e.g. bone metastases. The original cancer in the breast is referred to as the
primary.

Although metastatic breast cancer has spread to another part of the body, it is considered and treated as breast cancer. For example, breast cancer
that has spread to the bones is still breast cancer (not bone cancer) and is treated with breast cancer drugs, rather than treatments for a cancer that
began in the bones.

Sometimes people are found to have metastatic breast cancer at their first diagnosis of breast cancer. This is called ‘de novo’ metastatic breast cancer. Read more about an initial metastatic diagnosis.

It is more common for metastatic breast cancer to occur months or years (sometimes more than 20 years) after a person has completed treatment for
early breast cancer.

How long will I live?

When you are diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer it is natural to wonder how long you have to live. This is difficult to answer because no two people and no two cancers are the same. A number of factors will affect survival times for people with metastatic breast cancer, including the subtype of breast cancer (hormone receptor positive, HER2-positive and triple negative), the site of metastases, response to treatment, time since treatment for early breast cancer and the presence of other health issues not related to cancer.

If you wish to talk to your specialist about the likely progress of your disease, you have a right to clear and honest answers. Having a good relationship with your treatment team, where you can communicate openly and honestly, is important as you approach these sorts of conversations. Before you ask about your prognosis, you need to consider the impact of receiving this information.

More information

If you would like more information on metastatic breast cancer, please consider the following resources:

  • Order BCNA’s free resource, Hope & Hurdles, which is a comprehensive information resource especially for women diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer.
  • Find out what palliative care can do for you or for someone you love by using the Palliative Care Toolkit
  • Subscribe to The Inside Story – BCNA’s free, quarterly magazine for women living with metastatic breast cancer, which accompanies The Beacon magazine.
  • The Cancer Australia website has more information about metastatic breast cancer.
  • The personal stories section of this website has stories by women living with metastatic breast cancer.
  • You can also join BCNA’s online network if you think that talking to others in a similar situation will help.

 

Next: Finding out your cancer has spread