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Secondary breast cancer

Secondary breast cancer is invasive breast cancer that has spread from the breast to other parts of the body

Secondary breast cancer is also known as metastatic breast cancer or advanced breast cancer. Many women diagnosed with secondary breast cancer have been diagnosed with breast cancer before. For some women, a diagnosis of secondary breast cancer may be their first diagnosis of cancer.

How does secondary breast cancer develop?

In some women with breast cancer, cancer cells break away from the cancer in the breast. The cancer cells spread to other parts of the body in blood vessels or lymphatic vessels and form a new cancer deposit. This can happen before or after treatment for breast cancer.

The original cancer in the breast is called the primary cancer. If breast cancer develops in another part of the body it is called a secondary breast cancer or a metastasis.

Where does breast cancer spread to?

The most common places that breast cancer spreads to are the bones, liver, lung and brain. Having secondary breast cancer does not mean that cancer will spread to all these places.

What are the symptoms of secondary breast cancer?

Possible symptoms of secondary breast cancer are listed below. Every woman’s experience of metastatic breast cancer is different. Symptoms depend on what part of the body is affected. They may develop over weeks or months.

It’s unlikely that a woman will have all of the symptoms listed below. Some symptoms may not be due to secondary breast cancer at all.

  • If breast cancer spreads to the bone
    One of the first symptoms of cancer in the bone is usually a constant ache or pain in the bone. The pain can get worse during movement and can make it difficult to sleep at night.
  • If breast cancer spreads to the liver
    Symptoms of cancer in the liver include weight loss, tiredness and discomfort in the area of the liver (on the right side of the abdomen or tummy). Some women also feel sick or lose their appetite. Some women can develop jaundice. Some women develop a swollen abdomen because of a build up of fluid (ascites).
  • If cancer spreads to the lungs
    One of the first symptoms of cancer in the lungs is shortness of breath or a dry cough. Some women also have chest pain or a feeling of heaviness in the chest.
  • If cancer spreads to the brain
    Symptoms of cancer in the brain can include a headache that doesn’t go away, nausea (feeling sick) and vomiting. Headaches may be worse in the morning. Sometimes cancer in the brain causes changes in the part of the body controlled by that part of the brain. For example, an arm or leg might become weaker or your vision may become blurred. Cancer in the brain can also cause seizures (fits). In rare cases, cancer in the brain can cause confusion or a change in personality.

Find out more about:

Breast Cancer Network Australia (BCNA) has a free resource for women with secondary breast cancer called 'Hopes & Hurdles'. Visit BCNA for more information.