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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.
We haven’t included information about rarer symptoms of secondary breast cancer, which are very unlikely to affect you.
If you’ve had breast cancer it‘s natural to worry that any new ache or pain may mean your cancer has spread. But often the cause will turn out to be something straightforward. All the symptoms mentioned here can be caused by other conditions. It’s important to let your doctor or nurse know if you have any symptoms, particularly if they last more than a couple of weeks.
Our section on symptom control| gives helpful tips on how to cope with some of the symptoms described here.
As well as symptoms caused by the secondary cancer, there may be some general symptoms, which can include:
Remember, it’s not unusual to feel tired for months or longer after your initial cancer treatment finishes. Hormonal therapy| can make you feel tired, and anxiety| and stress can also cause some of these symptoms.
If you have any of these symptoms, it’s important to get them checked out by your doctor.
The symptoms you have will depend on which part of the body the cancer has spread to. You’re not likely to have all, or even most, of the symptoms mentioned here.
The first sign of a secondary cancer in the bones| is often a nagging ache in the affected bone. This can become painful, making it difficult to get to sleep at night, or to move around without taking painkillers. The pain tends to be there both day and night unlike, for example, arthritis which is often worse early in the morning and isn’t there all the time.
A secondary cancer in the bone may gradually damage the bone in the part affected by cancer cells. The more the bone is damaged, the weaker it becomes, and a bone that is very weak may break (fracture). Occasionally a fracture is the first symptom of secondary breast cancer in the bone. Because the bone is weakened, these fractures can happen after only minor injuries.
It’s sometimes possible for calcium - a mineral that’s mainly stored in the bones and needed for healthy bone development - to be released into the blood. This is called hypercalcaemia, and can occur when secondary cancer affects the bones. It causes symptoms such as tiredness, feeling sick, constipation, thirst and confusion. Treatment| can correct the calcium level and relieve these symptoms.
For most women, treatment for secondary cancer in the bone is usually started long before the bone becomes weak enough to cause a lot of pain or to break.
The first sign of secondary cancer in the lung| may be a persistent cough or breathlessness|. Breathing problems can be frightening, but there are effective ways of relieving breathlessness, which can quickly make your breathing easier.
If cancer cells settle on the outside of the lungs, they irritate the membranes which cover the lungs (pleura). This causes fluid to build up and press on the lungs, and is known as a pleural effusion|. This fluid can be drained away to make your breathing easier.
If your breast cancer has spread to the liver|, you may feel generally unwell and very tired. You may also have some discomfort in the area of the liver (on the right side of abdomen, just under the lower ribs). Some women feel sick (nauseous|) and lose their appetite.
The liver produces bile, which helps to digest food in the intestine. If the bile ducts leading out of the liver are blocked by secondary cancer, bile can build up in the blood and cause jaundice. This causes the skin and whites of the eyes to become yellow, and may make your skin feel itchy. However, the liver is a large organ and can work well when part of it, or even most of it, is affected by cancer.
When secondary cancer develops in the brain|, pressure may build up causing headaches and nausea (feeling sick), which may be worse in the morning when you wake up. Some women may have a seizure (fit), or experience weakness or feelings of numbness, and pins and needles in an arm or leg.
It’s understandable to feel frightened about how a tumour in the brain may affect you. But the symptoms of a secondary tumour in the brain can often be well managed.
Content last reviewed: 1 September 2010
Next planned review: 2013
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© Macmillan Cancer Support 2013
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