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Breast cancer| usually starts as a lump in the breast. This is known as a primary breast cancer. For many women who have treatment,| the cancer never comes back. But sometimes cells spread to other organs in the body. This is known as secondary breast cancer.
Cells can sometimes break away from the primary cancer and spread to other organs in the body through the bloodstream or lymphatic system.The lymphatic system is a network of lymph nodes (glands) connected to each other by tiny lymphatic tubes. It helps the body fight infection and drains fluid from the tissues.
When the breast cancer cells reach a new area they go on dividing and form a new tumour, known as a secondary cancer or metastasis. The secondary cancer that forms in the new area of the body is made up of breast cancer cells. So, for example, a secondary breast cancer in the liver behaves and is treated like breast cancer, not a primary liver cancer.
The symptoms| of secondary breast cancer may appear years after the initial diagnosis. Very occasionally, a secondary cancer is the first sign that a woman has breast cancer.
If breast cancer spreads it’s most likely to go to the following parts of the body:
In this section we explain how breast cancer that has spread to these parts of the body is treated. Less commonly, breast cancer can spread to other parts of the body, such as the bone marrow or ovaries. Our cancer support specialists| will be able to give you more information on this.
Breast cancer doesn’t usually spread to more than one place in the body at once, but some women may have more than one secondary cancer.
Sometimes breast cancer can come back in the skin of the breast where the cancer was originally removed, or in the operation scar. This is known as a local recurrence.
Breast cancer can also come back in the lymph nodes in the armpit, behind the breast bone or in the lower part of the neck. This is known as a regional recurrence. If cancer cells are blocking the lymph nodes in the armpit, fluid can build up in the arm causing swelling known as lymphoedema|.
Local and regional recurrences are not secondary breast cancer, as the cancer has not spread to another organ in the body.
Local and regional recurrences are less serious than secondary breast cancer. But you’ll still usually have tests to find out if the cancer has spread to other parts of the body.
A local or regional recurrence that hasn’t spread anywhere else is usually treated with surgery| or radiotherapy|. The treatment you have will depend on the treatment you’ve already had to remove and treat the primary breast cancer.
Content last reviewed: 1 September 2010
Next planned review: 2013
For answers, support or just a chat, call the Macmillan Support Line free (Monday to Friday, 9am-8pm)
If you have any questions about cancer, need support or just want someone to talk to, ask Macmillan.
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© Macmillan Cancer Support 2013
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