metastatic breast cancer | symptoms | how it is diagnosed

what is metastatic breast cancer

Metastatic breast cancer can develop when breast cancer cells break away from the primary tumor and enter the bloodstream or lymphatic system.

These systems carry fluids around the body. The cancer cells are able to travel in the fluids far from the original tumor. The cells can then settle and grow in a different part of the body and form new tumors.

Types of breast cancer

There are several types of breast cancer, and any of them can metastasize. Most breast cancers start in the ducts or lobules and are called ductal carcinomas or lobular carcinomas:

  • Ductal carcinoma. These cancers start in the cells lining the milk ducts and make up the majority of breast cancers.
  • Lobular carcinoma. This is cancer that starts in the lobules, which are the small, tube-like structures that contain milk glands.
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Some breast cancers are made up of a combination of types of breast cancers. These are sometimes called invasive mammary cancers.

Breast cancer can develop in women and men. However, male breast cancer is rare. Less than 1% of all breast cancers develop in men.

symptoms of metastatic breast cancer

Breast cancer subtypes

Breast cancer is not a single disease, even among the same type of breast cancer. When you are diagnosed with breast cancer, your doctor will recommend lab tests on the cancerous tissue. If you have been diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer after being treated for non-metastatic breast cancer, your doctor may want to repeat the tests to see if the tumor’s cells have changed in any way.

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These tests will help your doctor learn more about the cancer and choose the most effective treatment plan. Metastatic breast cancer is not curable, but it can be treatable. Many people continue to live well for many months or years with the disease, and treatments continue to improve.

Tests can find out if your cancer is:

  • Hormone receptor-positive. Breast cancers expressing estrogen receptors (ER) and/or progesterone receptors (PR) are called “hormone receptor-positive.” These receptors are proteins found in cells. Tumors that have estrogen receptors are called “ER-positive.” Tumors that have progesterone receptors are called “PR-positive.”
  • These cancers may depend on the hormones estrogen and/or progesterone to grow. Hormone receptor-positive cancers can occur at any age. However, they may be more frequent in people who have gone through menopause. Menopause is when the body’s ovaries stop releasing eggs. About 60% to 75% of breast cancers have estrogen and/or progesterone receptors. If the cancer does not have ER or PR, it is called “hormone receptor-negative.”
  • HER2-positive. About 15% to 20% of breast cancers depend on the gene called human epidermal growth factor receptor 2 (HER2) to grow. These cancers are called “HER2-positive” and have many copies of the HER2 gene or high levels of the HER2 protein.
  • These proteins are also called “receptors.” The HER2 gene makes the HER2 protein, which is found on the cancer cells and is important for tumor cell growth. HER2-positive breast cancers grow more quickly. They can also be either hormone receptor-positive or hormone receptor-negative (see above). Cancers that have no or low levels of the HER2 protein and/or few copies of the HER2 gene are called “HER2-negative.”
  • Triple-negative. If the breast tumor does not express ER, PR, or HER2, the tumor is called “triple-negative.” Triple-negative breast cancers make up about 15% of invasive breast cancers.
  • This type of breast cancer seems to be more common among younger women, particularly younger Black women. Triple-negative breast cancer may grow more quickly. Triple-negative breast cancers are the most common type of breast cancer diagnosed in people with a BRCA1 gene mutation.
  • This means that you may be more likely to have a BRCA1 gene mutation if you have been diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer. All people younger than 60 with triple-negative breast cancer should be tested for BRCA gene mutations. Find more information on BRCA gene mutations and breast cancer risk.
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Related about metastatic breast cancer

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  • how is metastatic breast cancer diagnosed
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  • metastatic breast cancer symptoms

Symptoms of metastatic breast cancer

  • Bone pain.
  • Headache.
  • Changes in brain function.
  • Trouble breathing.
  • Belly swelling.
  • Yellow skin or eyes (jaundice)
  • Double vision.
  • Nausea.

What does metastatic breast cancer feel like?

Breast cancer that has spread to the bones may cause: Sudden bone pain, such as hip or back pain, which may feel similar to the discomfort associated with arthritis or exercise strain but is persistent or progressively worse even with rest or conservative measures.

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Do you feel sick with metastatic breast cancer?

Some general symptoms that breast cancer may have spread include: Feeling constantly tired. 

Constant nausea (feeling sick) Unexplained weight loss and loss of appetite.

What are the 5 warning signs of breast cancer?

  • Lump, hard knot or thickening inside the breast or underarm.
  • Swelling, warmth, redness or darkening of the breast.
  • Change in size or shape of the breast.
  • Dimpling or puckering of the skin on your breast.
  • Nipple discharge.

Does metastatic breast cancer show up in blood work?

For metastatic breast cancer, testing may be done for cancer antigen 15-3 (CA 15-3), cancer antigen 27.29 (CA 27.29), and/or carcinoembryonic antigen (CEA). These biomarkers may be found in the blood of people with breast cancer.

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What was your first breast cancer symptom?

A lump in your breast or underarm that doesn’t go away. This is often the first symptom of breast cancer. Your doctor can usually see a lump on a mammogram long before you can see or feel it. Swelling in your armpit or near your collarbone.

What are the seven warning signs of breast cancer?

  • Swollen lymph nodes under the arm or around the collarbone. …
  • Swelling of all or part of the breast. …
  • Skin irritation or dimpling. …
  • Breast or nipple pain.
  • Nipple retraction. …
  • Redness, scaliness, or thickening of the nipple or breast skin.
  • Nipple discharge.
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How can doctors tell if breast cancer has spread?

Computed tomography (CT) scan

This test is most often used to look at the chest and/or belly (abdomen) to see if breast cancer has spread to other organs, like the lungs or liver.

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