More severe symptoms

It is important for a woman to see a health professional if she develops any of the following symptoms:

Enlarged abdomen (stomach) (rare)

A woman with secondary breast cancer should see a doctor if she develops an enlarged abdomen.

What causes it?
How to treat
  • Treatment depends on the underlying cause
  • The most important step is to work out why the abdomen is enlarged

Breathing problems (rare)

A woman with secondary breast cancer should see a doctor immediately if she suddenly has difficulty breathing or if symptoms become worse.

What causes it?
  • Infection
  • Low level of red blood cells in the blood (anaemia)
  • Cancer in the lungs
  • Fluid around the lungs
  • Fluid around the heart
  • Rare side effects of chemotherapy with taxanes or radiotherapy
  • Blood clots in the lungs
How to treat
  • Treating the underlying cause of the breathing problems
  • Removing fluid from around the lungs
  • Counselling or relaxation therapy
  • Finding a position that makes breathing easier, such as sitting upright
  • Pacing activities (alternating periods of activity with periods of rest)
  • Treatment with antidepressants or anti-anxiety drugs
  • Treatment with morphine or other opioid drugs

Confusion or other changes in thinking

A woman with secondary breast cancer should see a doctor if she or her family notice a change in her memory or thinking ability.

What is it?
  • Range of symptoms including confusion, agitation, disorientation, problems with concentration, change in behaviour, problems remembering things
What causes it?
  • Anxiety and depression
  • Infection
  • Drugs used to treat secondary breast cancer and symptoms
  • Cancer in the brain
  • Hypercalcaemia
  • Hypoglycaemia (low blood sugar)
  • Liver or kidney failure
  • Low oxygen levels due to cancer in the lungs
How to treat
  • Treatment depends on the symptoms and the cause
  • The most important step is to work out the most likely cause of the proble

Tips for women who experience confusion or changes in thinking

The following tips are based on the experience of health professionals and women themselves:

  • while doctors are working out why the problem has arisen, it’s important to have a family member or friend with you
  • surround yourself with familiar things and things that keep you motivated
  • keep a night light on when you go to bed as it’s easy to become disoriented in the dark
  • don’t drive your car while the problem is being investigated
  • try to maintain a quiet and calm environment; some people find meditation helpful.

Incontinence (rare)

Incontinence is a rare symptom of secondary breast cancer. Women who lose control over their bladder or bowel should talk to their doctor or community nurse about how to control it and make themselves more comfortable.

A woman with secondary breast cancer should see her doctor as soon as possible if she suddenly loses control over her bowel and bladder as this may be due to pressure on the spinal cord.