Secondary breast cancer is sometimes called advanced, metastatic or stage 4 breast cancer.
It occurs when cancer spreads from the original (or primary) site in the breast to more distant (or secondary) parts of the body through the blood or lymphatic system. It is most likely to be found in the bones, liver or lungs, although sometimes it can be found in the brain or other areas. This new cancer is still known as breast cancer even though it is in a different part of the body.
Sometimes cancer cells start to travel around the body before the tumour in the breast is found and treated. In some cases, the first diagnosis may be secondary breast cancer. Although uncommon, younger women and men can develop secondary breast cancer too. Around 3000 New Zealander’s are diagnosed with breast cancer every year. Around 650 people die from secondary breast cancer over the same period.
Secondary breast cancer is incurable however its advance can be controlled, often for many years. Many people describe themselves as living with secondary breast cancer, rather than dying from it. Advances in treatments mean that for some people, it can be managed like a chronic illness although it can affect quality of life. Many people experience side effects from drugs and discomfort over time from the breast cancer advancing.
The needs and issues of people with advanced breast cancer often differs from those who are newly diagnosed. Women and men living with metastatic breast cancer are in and out of treatment, sometimes for many years to help slow down or prevent their cancer progressing. They need ongoing support to navigate the healthcare system and help to understand which treatments will best optimise their quality of life. At times, relationships are placed under immense pressure as partners (who may also be caring for young children) feel the strain of co-managing the disease.
Research into treating secondary breast cancer is focussed on developing more affordable drugs which can prolong life with less side-effects. Treatments for secondary breast cancer are continually improving.
The big question for many when diagnosed with secondary breast cancer is ‘how long have I got to live?’ This can be difficult to answer as each individual’s cancer is different and responds to treatment at varying degrees. Your specialist will be the best person to advise.
If you have any questions about secondary breast cancer, call our breast care nurse on 0800BCNurse (0800 2268 773)
Find out about support groups in your local area or consider joining ‘Metavivors NZ’ a closed NZ forum specifically for those with advanced breast cancer. For more information please contact firstname.lastname@example.org
Request practical assistance at home and advice from Sweet Louise. This organisation focuses solely on supporting women and men with secondary breast cancer.
Look here for trusted international breast cancer websites