Living With Late-Stage Breast Cancer

Get answers to your most pressing questions about living with metastatic cancer.

Health Monitor Staff
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Discovering that your breast cancer has spread is never welcome news. Yet there are many powerful therapies that can shrink tumors and slow cancer’s progression. In fact, the 150,000-plus women in the U.S. now living with metastatic breast cancer are proof of just how far we’ve come.

If you have metastatic breast cancer, rest assured: With the help of your healthcare team, you may have many more birthdays, anniversaries and holidays to look forward to. Here’s what you need to know to become an informed decision-maker:

How does breast cancer spread?
Cells break off from the primary cancer in the breast and travel through the bloodstream to other parts of the body. The disease typically spreads to the bones, liver, lungs or the brain—and sometimes to more than one site. The place where cancer cells settle is called a metastasis.

Who gets metastatic breast cancer?
The overwhelming majority of patients are women. Although 61 is the median age at diagnosis, those in their 20s and 80s can get it, too.

How is metastatic breast cancer treated?
Your healthcare team will take into account your age, whether you’ve reached menopause, your health, the location of your cancer and how extensively it has spread. Treatment options include the following:

  • Hormone therapy may be used if your cancer is estrogen- or progesterone-receptor positive, meaning the tumor’s growth is fueled by these hormones. Antiestrogen medications block estrogen and aromatase inhibitors interfere with estrogen production. Hormone therapy is often used in patients whose cancer has spread to the bones or soft tissue.
  • Targeted therapy zeroes in on a fragment of DNA specific to a particular kind of cancer cell. It may be used if your cancer has HER2 receptors, which stimulate cancer growth. A medication called trastuzumab inactivates HER2 receptors, destroying cancer cells and reducing the risk of recurrence.
  • Chemotherapy may be prescribed if hormonal therapies aren’t right for you or you’ve used them but they’re not working. Chemo can shrink tumors, slow the spread of cancer and control symptoms.
  • Radiation therapy targets tumors, treats spinal compression and relieves pain and swelling. It’s also used to induce menopause.
  • Surgery is used to remove a tumor or treat or prevent a bone fracture or spinal compression.

Your doctor may recommend a single therapy or a combination of therapies. Regular CT scans and blood tests can help determine how well your treatment is working. Work with your doctor to stay on top of your progress. Remember, the goal is to feel your best. 

May 2013