Symptoms of secondary breast cancer
The symptoms of secondary breast cancer depend on the part of the body the cancer has spread to. In this section we explain the general symptoms, and some of the more specific symptoms you may experience.
This means every woman’s experience is different. You may also have some general symptoms. These may include feeling much more tired than usual, losing your appetite, feeling generally unwell or losing weight for no obvious reason.
All the symptoms mentioned here can be caused by other conditions. But if you have any of these symptoms it’s important to get them checked out by your doctor or specialist nurse. Always let them know if you develop any new symptoms, especially if they last more than a week or two.
If the cancer has spread to the bones
Back to top
The first symptom of this is often a nagging ache in the bone. This may become painful when you are moving around, or make it difficult to sleep. The pain tends to be there both day and night.
Aches and pains are not uncommon and can be caused by different things. But it’s important to see your doctor if your symptoms continue.
Secondary breast cancer in the bones can be controlled with hormonal therapy and drugs that strengthen the bones.
Other bone problems
These are not common in women who are newly diagnosed with secondary breast cancer in the bone. But it’s important to know about them.
A break in the bone (fracture)
If the cancer gradually damages the bone it may become weaker and occasionally a very weak bone can break (fracture). Treatments are usually started long before a bone is weak enough to break.
Sometimes if the cancer damages the bone it can cause calcium (a mineral stored in bones) to be released into the blood. A high level of calcium in the blood (hypercalcaemia) can cause symptoms such as feeling tired, sick, thirsty, passing more urine, being constipated or feeling confused. Hypercalcaemia can be picked up on a blood test before symptoms develop. Treatments are given to correct the calcium level and relieve any symptoms.
Spinal cord compression
Occasionally, if the secondary cancer has spread to the spine and is causing pressure on the spinal cord, this may cause symptoms. These include unexplained pain in the back, neck, or down the arm; numbness or pins and needles in toes, fingers or buttocks; unsteadiness or difficulty walking; or problems with bladder or bowel control. If you have any of these symptoms it is very important to let your cancer doctor or nurse know immediately. Spinal cord compression can be successfully treated if it is diagnosed quickly.
If the cancer has spread to the lungs
Back to top
The first symptoms of this may be a cough that doesn’t get better or breathlessness. If cancer cells settle on the outside of the lungs, they can irritate the membranes which cover the lungs (pleura). This causes fluid to build up and press on the lungs which can make you breathless. This is called a pleural effusion. The fluid can be drained away to make your breathing easier.
Breathlessness can be frightening, but there are effective ways of managing it. When treatment - usually chemotherapy - starts to work, your breathing will improve.
If the cancer has spread to the liver
Back to top
Some women may have discomfort or pain in the liver, which is on the right side of the tummy (abdomen) under the ribs. Other symptoms may include feeling sick, losing your appetite, or feeling very tired and generally unwell.
Occasionally, secondary breast cancer in the liver results in a build-up of bile in the blood causing jaundice. This makes the skin and whites of the eyes become yellow and skin feels itchy.
The liver is a large organ and can still work well even when it is affected by cancer. When your treatment - usually chemotherapy - starts to work, the symptoms will improve.
If the cancer has spread to the brain
Back to top
This may cause symptoms such as a headache that doesn’t go away, feeling sick or being sick. These symptoms are caused by increased pressure in the brain and may be worse first thing in the morning.
Depending on the part of the brain that is affected, some women may have other symptoms. This can include feelings of weakness, pins and needles or numbness in an arm or a leg, or sometimes a seizure (fit).
It is natural to feel frightened at the thought of having a secondary cancer in the brain. However, drugs called steroids and radiotherapy are used to treat the cancer. This will get rid of the headaches and improve other symptoms.
We haven’t included information about rarer symptoms of secondary breast cancer, which are very unlikely to affect you. If you are worried about any symptoms that you have, it’s important to talk to your doctor.
You can call our cancer support specialists on for more information about secondary cancer in all these parts of the body.