Do you know? Every 1 in 3 women who have battled breast cancer can see its return, referred to as metastatic breast cancer. This type of breast cancer is deadly and can only be battled by early detection and treatment.
October 13 is the Metastatic Breast Cancer Awareness Day. Unfortunately, the chances are good that people are not aware of this cancer, and it is the right time to gain knowledge about this cancer and how it can be treated and prevented through early screening.
As more and more people become aware, the fight against this cancer becomes more straightforward, which is helpful to reduce the overall burden of disease. But, first, let’s learn about metastatic cancer in detail.
What is metastatic breast cancer?
Metastatic breast cancer is the fourth stage of breast cancer and is referred to as advanced breast cancer. It occurs when breast cancer spreads to other body parts such as the liver, lungs, bones andbrain. Although It has spread to other body parts, it is still breast cancer, not liver, lung cancer or bone cancer.
It can be further categorised into localized, which spreads to nearby lymph nodes, and distant tumours, which spreads to distant locations in the body.
Symptoms of metastatic breast cancer
The signs and symptoms of metastatic breast cancer can be different from early-stage breast cancer. It can cause specific symptoms depending on the body part it affects, such as:
- Chest pain, shortness of breath and difficulty in breathing when it spreads to the lungs
- Jaundice, swelling and pain in the abdomen when it spreads to the liver
- Bone fractures and pain when it spreads to bones
- Dizziness, headache, slurred speech, and memory loss when it spreads to the brain and spinal cord
Other non-specific symptoms of this cancer include loss of appetite, fatigue, weight loss, continuous pain, digestive problems such as nausea and vomiting, and emotional changes such as depression and anxiety.
How to diagnose metastatic breast cancer?
It is essential to get a clear picture of your tumour for determining its stage and designing a treatment plan. The diagnosis of metastatic breast cancer involves a combination of tests such as:
- Medical, family and genetic history
- Physical examination including Mammography
- Imaging tests such as Ultrasound, Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), Computed tomography scan (CT scan), Positron emission tomography (PET) scan, Chest X-ray and Bone scan
- Tissue tests including Breast and sentinel lymph node biopsy
- Tumour tests such as the HER2 test to determine the type of tumour
These tests diagnose breast cancer cells stage and location and can also help determine the effect of treatment on tumour cells. In addition, it will help to identify patients who did not respond to treatment so that treatment can be discontinued and related side effects such as fatigue, leukopenia, neutropenia, neuropathy and alopecia can be reduced.
Treatment of metastatic breast cancer
The goal of treatment is to slow down the growth of tumours while improving symptoms and quality of life. Thus, it includes a combination of treatments rather than a single treatment option.
The most commonly used treatment options are:
- Chemotherapy including the use of drugs such as doxorubicin, paclitaxel, capecitabine, which can be used either as monotherapy or combination therapy
- Hormone therapy and aromatase inhibitors, including the use of tamoxifen, letrozole andanastrozole which helps to slow down tumour growth
- Targeted therapy including the use of PARP inhibitors such as olaparib and talazoparib, which targets a specific enzyme
- Immunotherapy including the use of monoclonal antibodies such as pembrolizumab and trastuzumab, which enhances immune cells ability to fight cancer
- Alternative and Complementary therapies include meditation, spiritual practice, hypnotherapy and relaxation practices to reduce pain and side effects of treatments such as fatigue.
Systemic therapies, including chemotherapeutic drugs, are more favoured over local or regional treatment options such as radiotherapy or surgery. These treatments are only used to treat or get rid of breast cancer confined to a specific part of the body.
Radiotherapy or surgery should only be preferred in some special situations, including:
- When breast cancer causes an open wound in the breast or chest
- ‘When cancer spread is pressing on the spinal cord
- To treat blockage of the blood vessel in the liver
- To treat a small number of metastases in a particular area, such as the brain
Furthermore, the treatment of metastatic breast cancer is complex and depends on specific factors such as characteristics of cancer cells, location of spread, symptoms, past treatments received, age and condition of the patient.
Living with metastatic breast cancer
The diagnosis of metastatic breast cancer can elicit a flood of negative emotions such as depression, stress and anxiety. It is frightening, but patients must deal with it firmly and reach out to their family and friends for support.
Alongside psychosocial support, they should eat a nutritious diet to tolerate treatment effects and exercise regularly to boost their body, mind and soul. While choosing exercise, patients should try simple aerobic activities such as walking, stretching and cycling.
Try to practice yoga and meditation to boost your mental health. Don’t forget! Only strong mental, emotional and physical support can help to battle this disease.
Also, Explore another type of breast cancer: Triple Negative Breast Cancer
Frequently asked questions (FAQs)
Q. Who gets metastatic breast cancer?
Ans. Women who had battled breast cancer (due to gene mutations) in their lifetime or those who had failed to diagnose breast cancer at an early stage get metastatic breast cancer.
Q. What is the average life expectancy for metastatic breast cancer?
Ans. Metastatic breast cancer is treatable but is not curable. Clinical trials suggest that the five-year survival rate of this cancer is 22%, and the median survival is three years. However, life expectancy varies from person to person. Also, novel treatments have improved the survival rates of this cancer.