Metastatic Breast Cancer: Understanding the Symptoms

Metastatic breast cancer occurs when cancer that started in the breast spreads to another part of the body. It’s also known as stage 4 breast cancer. There isn’t a cure currently for metastatic breast cancer, but treatments can help relieve symptoms, improve quality of life, and prolong life. The outlook for people with metastatic breast cancer and the length of time between a stage 4 diagnosis and the onset of end-of-life symptoms varies greatly.

Research suggests that about 27 percentTrusted Source of people who receive a metastatic breast cancer diagnosis live at least 5 years after their diagnosis. Keep in mind that these statistics can’t predict your personal outlook. Many individual factors play a role in survival rates. 

Newer treatments are helping extend lives and improve the quality of life for people with metastatic breast cancer. Regardless of what stage of cancer you have, it’s important to be informed.

What is metastasis?

Metastasis occurs when cancer spreads from the location where it started to another part of the body. If breast cancer spreads beyond the breast, it tends to appear in one or more of the following areas: bones; brain; lung; liver; distant lymph nodes

If the cancer is confined to the breast, it’s usually easy to treat. If it has spread, it can become more difficult to treat. That’s why early diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer is so important. It’s when the cancer spreads to another part of the body that the disease is diagnosed as metastatic.

Successful breast cancer treatment can often eliminate all cancer that’s detected from the body. However, dormant microscopic disease can cause the cancer to recur in the breast or in other parts of the body. This can happen months to years later.

What are the symptoms?

If breast cancer is diagnosed at a later stage, symptoms can differ from earlier-stage symptoms, such as skin changes, nipple discharge, or a lump. 

Advanced stage 4 symptoms may include:

  • Changes in breast shape
  • Fatigue
  • Shortness of breath
  • New, unexplained pain
  • Changes in appetite or digestion difficulties
  • Weight loss
  • New headaches

Locations of metastasis and their symptoms

Metastasis symptoms may depend on where breast cancer has spread in your body.

Metastasis in the bones

If breast cancer has spread to your bones, symptoms may include:

  • Bone pain
  • Weakened bones that are more likely to fracture
  • Metastasis in the brain
  • If breast cancer has spread to your brain, you may experience:
  • Severe headaches
  • Possible seizures
  • Behavior changes
  • Vision problems
  • Nausea
  • Difficulty walking or balancing

Metastasis in the lungs

If breast cancer has spread to your lungs, symptoms may include:

  • A chronic cough that may get worse
  • Difficulty catching your breath
  • Chest pain
  • Hoarseness
  • Feeling weak or tired
  • Coughing up blood or rust-colored spit or phlegm

Metastasis in the liver

If breast cancer has spread to your liver, you may experience:

  • Weight loss
  • Lack of appetite and feeling full after a small meal
  • Vomiting or nausea
  • Abdominal pain
  • Pain near your right shoulder blade
  • A feeling of fullness under your ribs on the right side due to an enlarged liver
  • Yellowing of the skin (jaundice)
  • Itchy skin

Diagnosing metastatic breast cancer

If you are diagnosed with breast cancer and have symptoms that could indicate that the cancer may have spread to other areas, your doctor will request other tests. These tests could include:

  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)
  • Bone scan
  • X-rays
  • Computerized tomography (CT) scan
  • Positron emission tomography (PET) scan

If your doctor suspects that the cancer may have metastasized to your lungs, they may order further tests like bronchoscopy, lung needle biopsy, or surgery to examine a portion of the lungs.

Treating metastatic breast cancer

Treating metastatic breast cancer is often the same as treating breast cancer in the earlier stages. Treatments can include:

  • Radiation
  • Chemotherapy
  • Hormone therapy
  • Biologic therapy
  • Surgery

Additional treatments can help manage symptoms and improve quality of life.

Managing symptoms and care

You and your healthcare team can work together to manage your symptoms. Some things, like lifestyle changes, can be done at home with the help of loved ones, while others may require a healthcare professional’s advice and supervision.

Talk with your doctor about the best options for easing symptoms and improving your quality of life. Certain modifications to your environment and daily activities can make living with later-stage metastatic cancer symptoms more manageable.


You may also need to adjust your eating habits. You may have a reduced appetite. Changes in your senses of smell and taste may also make you less interested in food.

Try to experiment with different foods or supplement your diet with protein drinks that are high in calories. This can help you strike a balance between a smaller appetite and maintaining enough strength and energy to get through the day.

It’s best to avoid or limit foods like:

  • High fat meats
  • Dairy products
  • Alcohol
  • Sweets


Your doctor may prescribe medications to help ease any pain or anxiety.

Pain medications are often prescribed in a variety of methods:

  • by mouth
  • by using a skin patch
  • intravenously

A pain-medication pump is sometimes needed to administer appropriate levels of medication. If fatigue and sleeping problems are affecting your quality of life, solutions such as adjusting your sleep schedule or even where you sleep might help.

Hospice or palliative care

Treatments for metastatic breast cancer are becoming so advanced that many people can live for a long time after their diagnosis and still maintain a good quality of life. If treatment stops working, your doctor may recommend hospice or palliative care.

Hospice or palliative care is also an option for people who choose to discontinue treatment due to side effects that greatly interfere with their day-to-day activities. These side effects can include:

  • Fatigue
  • Pain
  • Loss of appetite and weight loss
  • Fear and anxiety

Hospice and palliative care focus on symptom management, comfort, and quality of life.

No matter what stage of cancer you have, joining a breast cancer support group is often beneficial, too. It allows you to share your experiences and feelings with others who are in the same situation and understand what you’re going through.

A support group can provide connection and comfort, reduce your isolation, and help improve your well-being, among other benefits.

Find a support group near you via the following sites:

  • National Breast Cancer Foundation
  • Speak with your doctor

Doctors and other members of your healthcare team can better manage your care if you report your symptoms, concerns, and what is or is not working. Connecting with others and sharing your experiences and worries can also be therapeutic.

Overall, a metastatic breast cancer outlook isn’t as life-limiting as it once was. Advanced treatments are extending lives, and more is being researched every day.


  • Cancer stat facts: Female breast cancer. (n.d.).
  • Metastatic breast cancer. (2021).
  • Nutrition. (2019).
  • Coping with advanced and metastatic cancer. (2020).
  • Physical changes as you near the end of life. (2019).
  • Signs and symptoms of bone cancer. (2018).
  • Signs and symptoms of liver cancer. (2019).
  • Signs and symptoms of lung cancer. (2019).
  • Survival rates for breast cancer. (2021).
  • Understanding advanced and metastatic cancer. (2020).
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