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Metastatic Breast Cancer

Finding out you have metastatic breast cancer may be overwhelming and scary. Our breast cancer team is here to help you manage this lifelong disease. At the Abramson Cancer Center, we offer comprehensive care for metastatic breast cancer that includes advanced imaging, innovative treatment and specialized support services.

What Is Metastatic Breast Cancer?

All types of breast cancer begin in the breast tissue. If the cancerous cells spread (metastasize) beyond the breast, we call it metastatic breast cancer, or stage IV breast cancer. This happens when breast cancer cells travel through the bloodstream or lymphatic system.

If breast cancer is not detected before it spreads, metastatic breast cancer may be your first breast cancer diagnosis. In other cases, breast cancer may resurface elsewhere in your body months or years after an initial diagnosis. About 30 percent of early-stage breast cancers return as metastatic disease.

Breast cancer most commonly spreads to the bones, lymph nodes, lungs, liver and brain. In more than half of metastatic breast cancers, the cells spread to bones first. No matter where a metastatic tumor is found, it contains breast cancer cells and is considered breast cancer.

Signs of Metastatic Breast Cancer

Symptoms of metastatic breast cancer depend on where the cancer is discovered. Common locations and symptoms include:

  • Bone: Symptoms can include a severe new bone pain that gradually becomes constant. Bony metastases can also cause fractures.
  • Brain: Signs can include headaches, nausea, facial numbness and changes in speech, vision or balance.
  • Liver: Liver metastases rarely produce symptoms. When they occur, symptoms can include pain in the right side of the abdomen, weakness, poor appetite and yellowing of the eyes and skin.
  • Lungs: Signs of lung metastases include lung pain, shortness of breath and persistent cough.

Why Choose the Abramson Cancer Center for Stage IV Breast Cancer?

We have the resources to identify metastatic breast cancer and get you the personalized treatment you need. At the Abramson Cancer Center, you can expect:

  • Advanced imaging: We use imaging studies such as CT scans, bone scans, and nuclear medicine tests to identify metastatic breast cancer. Imaging specialists across the Penn Medicine network collaborate to provide the most accurate interpretation of your scans.
  • Access to innovative trials: We offer breast cancer clinical trials for patients diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer. These studies give you access to new and promising treatment and imaging.
  • Personalized treatment: We use tumor profiling to understand the genes in cancer cells. This information helps us individualize targeted therapies and treatment for your disease.
  • Care close to home: We care for metastatic breast cancer at all our Penn Medicine locations. Oncologists and radiologists throughout our network collaborate to get you the treatment you need.

How We Approach Treatment for Metastatic Breast Cancer

We understand that metastatic breast cancer is a disease you will actively manage for the rest of your life. Our treatment goal is to control the cancer and help you maintain a good quality of life.

Advanced Imaging for Metastatic Breast Cancer

We use leading edge imaging technology to understand the spread of breast cancer. Our specialized radiologists identify the location of the cancer, see how far it has spread and determine how well treatment is working. Imaging for metastasized breast cancer may include:

  • Bone scan, which looks inside bones in search of metastasized cancer
  • CT Scans, which looks inside bones and soft tissues in search of metastasized cancer
  • MRI (magnetic resonance imaging), to get a full body scan and measure tumor size
  • PET/CT (positron emission tomography/computed tomography), which are typically used together to detect the spread of breast cancer and measure the size of tumors
  • X-ray, to look for cancer that spread from the breast to the lungs

Systemic Therapy

Systemic therapy (drugs that work throughout the body) is the primary treatment used for metastatic breast cancer. The types of medication used depends on whether a cancer is hormone receptor-positive or HER2-positive (human epidermal growth factor receptor 2). Systemic therapy for advanced breast cancer can include:

Immunotherapy for Breast Cancer

Immunotherapy (biologic therapy) is a breast cancer treatment that helps your immune system attack cancer cells. Immunotherapy for breast cancer is a new and promising approach that may benefit advanced cancer with characteristics including:

  • Triple negative status
  • Higher levels of PD-L1 protein in immune cells around the breast tumor

Clinical Trials

Our breast cancer research program offers a variety of promising studies for patients with metastatic breast cancer. Participating in a trial gives you access to innovative treatments and imaging studies. Your care team identifies trials that are appropriate for you. You can also search our database of breast cancer clinical trials.

Relieving the Symptoms of Advanced Breast Cancer

Metastatic breast cancer may cause pain and discomfort. Treatments such as radiation therapy and surgery help us prevent or minimize more serious symptoms and complications of metastatic breast cancer. We offer breast cancer support and integrative oncology to help with treatment side effects and non-medical issues.