Treatment options for secondary (metastatic) breast cancer

A range of different treatments are available for secondary breast cancer.

Everyone is different. Treatments that may be suitable for one woman may not be suitable for another. It may be that several different treatments are tried before finding one that the cancer responds to.The aim of treatment for secondary (metastatic) breast cancer is to control the growth and spread of the cancer, to relieve symptoms and improve or maintain quality of life.

The treatments recommended will depend on:

  • which treatments are most likely to control the breast cancer
  • what side effects the woman can cope with.

Treatment for secondary breast cancer usually involves treatment with one or more systemic therapies:

Treatment for secondary breast cancer may involve:

In addition to treatments to control the cancer, there’s the option of palliative care to help reduce symptoms and improve quality of life. It’s possible to have palliative care at the same time as active treatment for secondary breast cancer.

In addition, some women choose to use complementary therapies or may be involved in a clinical trial.

Hormonal therapies

Hormonal therapies are drugs used to treat women who have hormone receptors on their breast cancer cells. Hormonal therapies are usually used as the first treatment for secondary breast cancer and may be used alone or with other treatments.

Hormonal therapies can slow or stop the growth of secondary breast cancers and can relieve symptoms. For some people, hormonal therapies can make the cancer smaller. The benefits of treatment with hormonal therapies for women with secondary breast cancer can last for some time – sometimes for years.

Hormonal therapies are usually recommended as the first treatment for women with hormone receptor-positive secondary breast cancer. Hormonal therapies are usually given before chemotherapy. If the cancer is growing quickly, especially if it is in the liver or lungs, chemotherapy may be given first.

Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy may be used to treat women who do not have hormone receptors on their breast cancer cells. It may also be used after hormonal therapies, or to treat secondary breast cancer that is growing quickly, particularly if it’s in the liver or lungs.

The aim of chemotherapy for secondary breast cancer is to stop the cancer from growing or spreading, to relieve symptoms and improve quality of life. For some people, chemotherapy can make the cancer smaller. The benefits of treatment with chemotherapy can last for some time – sometimes for years.

Chemotherapy is usually recommended for women with secondary breast cancer who:

  • don’t have hormone receptors on their breast cancer cells
  • have hormone receptors on their breast cancer cells but have stopped responding to hormonal therapies
  • have a fast-growing cancer, especially if it’s in the liver or lungs.

Targeted therapies

Targeted therapies (sometimes called biological therapies) are drugs that stop the growth of particular types of cancer cells. Targeted therapies are only suitable for some women. They are usually used with other treatments.

Radiotherapy

Radiotherapy may be used to reduce the size of secondary breast cancers in some parts of the body and to relieve pain, especially in the bones.

Surgery

Surgery is not routinely used in the treatment of secondary breast cancer. It may have an important role for some women as a way of controlling the disease or reducing symptoms in certain parts of the body. Surgery may be used to treat cancer in the bones, lungs or brain, and more rarely in the liver. A biopsy of the breast will usually be done if secondary breast cancer is the first diagnosis of breast cancer.