Metastatic Breast Cancer: Understanding the Spread and Recurrence of Cancer in Breasts

Breast cancer, one of the most common forms of cancer in women, occurs due to abnormal cell growth in one or both breasts. One of the main fears of most women suffering from cancer is that it will either spread or recur. When breast cancer spreads to other organs of the body, it is termed as metastatic breast cancer. 

Early Diagnosis

Early diagnosis is crucial in determining the chances of cancer coming back or spreading to other parts of the body. Doctors may consider factors such as the size of the tumor, extent of spread, symptoms, medical history, and a few common tests and scans to follow the status of the cancer. The stage of cancer at the time of diagnosis is also taken into consideration. The earliest stage of cancer, or stage 0, is pre-invasive and can be successfully cured. Cancers that are considered stage 1 to 3 can be treated with surgery and various therapies. However,  there is a risk of recurrence since the cancer may have spread to the lymph nodes. If the cancer is diagnosed at stage 4, it has already metastasized or spread to other parts of the body.

What Are the Chances of Recurrence of Breast Cancer?

There are 3 main types of recurring breast cancer – local, regional, and distant. 

  • Local – recurs in the breast that was originally affected.
  • Regional – recurs in the lymph nodes or the chest wall.
  • Distant – spreads to distant organs.

How Does Breast Cancer Spread?

There are several ways in which breast cancer spreads:

  • Through the lymph nodes: Most cases of breast cancer affect the lymph nodes. If the cancer cells enter the lymphatic system, they can easily travel to distant body parts. 
  • Through the blood vessels: Just like the lymphatic system, cancer cells may invade the blood vessels and travel to remote organs via the bloodstream. 
  • Through direct invasion: There are high chances of the cancer spreading to nearby tissues and organs in breast cancer. 

Why Do Cancer Cells Spread?

Normal cells stick together. They control their growth, reproduce only when needed, and self-destruct when they are damaged or old. However, cancer cells never stop growing and dividing. They don’t stick together, don’t repair themselves or self-destruct, and ignore communicational signals from other cells. This is why cancer cells tend to spread and recur, while normal cells don’t. 

What are the Risk Factors?

The following are a few factors that increase the risk of breast cancer recurring:

  • An excessively large tumor  
  • Cancers diagnosed at a higher stage
  • Cancers that involve the lymph nodes
  • Cancers that are diagnosed in younger women, especially under the age of 35
  • Patients suffering from inflammatory cancer 

What are the Symptoms of Metastatic Breast Cancer?

The symptoms will vary depending on the part of the body to which the cancer has spread. Some of the symptoms include:

  • Bones – pain and pathologic fractures
  • Lungs – cough, breathlessness, and chest pain
  • Breast or chest wall – nipple discharge, pain, a lump in the breast or underarm
  • Liver – fatigue, nausea, yellowing of the skin, swollen feet or hands
  • Central nervous system – blurred vision, memory loss, seizures, pain, and headaches


Metastatic cancer can be diagnosed with the help of blood tests, biopsies, and a series of imaging tests such as x-rays, MRIs, PET scans, CT scans, and bone scans. 

Can Metastatic Breast Cancer Be Treated? 

While metastatic breast cancer is not curable, various treatment options can slow cancer and extend the patient’s life. Some of these treatments include targeted therapy, chemotherapy, hormone therapy, radiation therapy, and surgery. These treatments can be given individually or in combination. Some patients may even be eligible to participate in clinical trials. 

For more information on breast cancer and its treatment, contact us.


Dr. Sherry Johnson

Dr. Sherry Johnson is board-certified in General Surgery. She is the only fellowship trained breast oncologist in Anchorage. Dr. Johnson is a member of various professional organizations, including the American Society of Breast Surgeons, and Society of Surgical Oncology. She believes in providing comprehensive and compassionate care to the community that raised her. Dr. Johnson received her Bachelor of Science in Biology at Pfeiffer University in North Carolina and Doctorate of Osteopathic Medicine at Pacific Northwest University of Health Sciences in Washington. She pursued her General Surgery Residency at Henry Ford Wyandotte Hospital in Michigan.

Alaska Cancer Treatment Center

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