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Breast Cancer, Metastatic or Recurrent


Topic Overview

Is this topic for you?

This topic provides information about breast cancer that has spread or come back after treatment. If you are looking for information about first-time diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer, see the topic Breast Cancer.

What are metastatic and recurrent breast cancer?

Breast cancer occurs when abnormal cells grow out of control in one or both breasts.

  • Metastatic breast cancer means that cancer has spread to other parts of the body.
  • Recurrent breast cancer means that cancer has come back in or near the original site or in another part of the body.

For most women who have had breast cancer, their greatest fear is that the cancer will come back or spread. Finding out that this has happened can turn your world upside down. But there is hope. Some recurrent breast cancers can be successfully treated. Other recurrent breast cancers and metastatic breast cancer usually can't be cured. But with treatment, some women live for many years.

Why does breast cancer come back after treatment?

Even with the best treatment, cancer can come back. If just a few cancer cells remain in your body after your initial treatment, those cells can spread through the blood or lymph system and grow. This may happen from a few months to many years after the first diagnosis.

If your breast cancer has come back, you may second-guess your previous treatment choices. But the fact is, there is no guarantee with any treatment. Now it is time to make new decisions and explore other treatment options.

What are the symptoms?

The symptoms depend on where the cancer is and how large it is. The most common places for breast cancer to spread are within the breast or to the nearby chest wall or to the liver, lungs, or bones. Common symptoms include a lump in your breast or on your chest wall, bone pain, and shortness of breath.

Or you may not have any symptoms. Sometimes recurrent or metastatic breast cancer is found with an X-ray or a lab test.

How is it treated?

To plan your treatment, your doctor will consider where the cancer is and what type of treatment you had in the past. Your wishes and quality of life are also important factors. Treatment choices may include surgery, medicines like chemotherapy or hormone therapy, and radiation. Sometimes a mix of these treatments is used.

Treatments for breast cancer can cause side effects. Your doctor can tell you what problems to expect and help you find ways to manage them.

Your doctor may recommend that you join a clinical trial if one is available in your area. Clinical trials test new cancer treatments and may be the best choice for you.

If treatments don't work, a time may come when the goal of your treatment shifts from trying to cure your cancer to keeping you as comfortable as possible. This can allow you to make the most of the time you have left.

How can you handle your feelings about having breast cancer again?

It's common to have a wide range of emotions. It may be hard to stay hopeful when you are fighting cancer for the second or third time. These ideas may help:

  • Get the support you need. Spend time with people who care about you, and let them help you.
  • Take good care of yourself. Get plenty of rest, and eat nourishing foods.
  • Talk about your feelings. Find a support group where you can share your experience.
  • Stay positive. Do things each day that will help you stay calm and relaxed.

If your emotions are too much to handle, be sure to tell your doctor. You may be able to get counseling or other types of help.

You may want to think about planning for the future. A living will lets doctors know what type of life-support measures you want if your health gets much worse. You can also choose a health care agent to make decisions in case you aren't able to. If you put your wishes in writing, you can make it easier for your loved ones and others to know what you want.

Frequently Asked Questions

Learning about metastatic and recurrent breast cancer:

Being diagnosed:

Getting treatment:

Ongoing concerns:

Living with breast cancer:

End-of-life issues:

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