Metastatic breast cancer is also known as stage IV breast cancer. This term refers to a condition in which breast cancer cells break away from their original tumour in the breast, and travel all over the body through the blood or lymphatic system. Though a patient may be in successful remission, there are always chances of this disease occurring somewhere else in the body. In fact, 30% of women who are diagnosed with early stages of breast cancer develop metastatic breast cancer symptoms at some point. Therefore, it is extremely important to be aware of this disease so that patients can help with early detection and quick treatments.
What is Metastatic Breast Cancer?
As metastatic breast cancer is made of breast cells, no matter where they grow, the patient is said to have this disease, and not a different form of cancer. For instance, if the patient’s cancer metastasizes in the bones, it will not be called bone cancer as the cells are still made of cancerous breast cells. This is why sometimes there are patients who find that their cancer has spread when the doctor notices symptoms in other parts of the body, instead of the breasts first.
Metastatic Breast Cancer Symptoms:
Metastatic breast cancer symptoms depend largely on the area that they have spread to. Some of the symptoms are as follows:
- Bone metastases: Breast cancer can spread to the bones through the blood or lymphatic system. More often than not, this cancer occurs in the spine, pelvis, ribs, or the longer bones in the body. The most common symptom is a sudden and highly severe pain in the bones. This can be accompanied by other symptoms like nausea, vomiting, feeling weak, difficulty passing urine, and pain in the neck and back.
- Lung metastases: Breast cancer in the lungs can be quite dangerous as it does not present with symptoms. However, depending on how far it has progressed or where it has occurred within the lungs, patients may experience shortness of breath, discomfort, pain, and persistent cough.
- Liver metastases: Breast cancer in the liver also does not cause metastatic breast cancer symptoms. If it does cause any symptoms, they generally include pain in the mid-section, weakness, discomfort, fever, and loss of appetite.
- Brain metastases: Breast cancer in the brain can cause symptoms like slurred speech, headaches, memory problems, changes in speech and vision, and declining cognitive abilities.
Metastatic Breast Cancer Treatments:
With cancer, there is no set treatment plan than applies to every patient. Doctors evaluate the patient’s medical history, symptoms, and how far the disease has spread before crafting a treatment plan. Some of the commonly prescribed metastatic breast cancer treatments include the following:
- Chemotherapy: By administering a cocktail of drugs, doctors try to damage and reduce the cancer cells in the body.
- Surgery: Depending on where the tumours are, doctors may recommend surgery to remove them. Surgery can also help prevent bone breakages and blockages caused in the liver due to cancer cells.
- Hormone therapy: Hormone therapy is used in order to reduce the size of any hormone-receptor-positive tumours in the body.
- Radiation therapy: This form of treatment can help with localizing the cancer to a specific area, and easing the patient’s pain to some extent.
- Targeted therapy: In this treatment, doctors target a specific characteristic of a cancer cell, such as the proteins in it, to stop it from growing and spreading.
Living with Metastatic Breast Cancer:
On receiving their diagnosis, most patients view it as a death sentence however, this is not necessarily true. The following are a few facts about living with metastatic breast cancer and how the disease can impact the patient’s life:
- According to studies published in Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention, 34% of patients who are diagnosed with this disease have been living with it for over 5 years. Moreover, even after diagnosis, women can live up to decades, so one must not immediately jump to the conclusion that this is the end of the road.
- The treatment is never over. As the disease is ultimately a terminal one, patients will be on treatments for the rest of their lives.
- Patients will not always feel and look sick. The symptoms of the disease can come in waves and often, patients may not physically look sick. They may also feel relatively good. This is an important fact to remember because patients often picture the time period that is dedicated to prolonging life as a painful and terrible one. Patients who value being independent must remember this fact before deciding against the treatment. Having said that, it is important to note that there will be good days and there will be bad days.
- Your energy levels will often be quite unpredictable, which means that the plans you may should be flexible in nature. If you want to continue working, perhaps opting for work-from-home possibilities may make the most sense. You must speak to your employer about the fact that there will be days when you won’t feel your best and they should structure their workloads accordingly.
- Do not disregard clinical trials as they can be quite effective too. However, do not pin all your hopes on them either as disappointment can be a huge blow to your health.
- Ensure that you and your family take in account the fact that cancer patients can suffer from depression. Talk to a therapist or a support group in order to make sure you are on top of your symptoms.
Finding ways to cope with the disease can be extremely helpful. It can enable you and your family to cultivate a positive and happy outlook.
Your cancer diagnosis may feel like the end of the world, especially if it is metastatic breast cancer. You must remember that time on earth is precious and spending it positively with your loved ones can be one of the best gifts you can give them and yourself.