Secondary breast cancer
Secondary breast cancer is breast cancer that has spread from the breast to other parts of the body.
Breast cancer starts as a lump in the breast and this is known as primary breast cancer. In many women, primary breast cancer does not come back after treatment. However, in some women, cancer cells break away from the primary breast cancer and spread to other parts of the body through the bloodstream or lymphatic system.
These cancer cells go on dividing and form a new cancer, known as a secondary cancer or metastasis. The secondary cancer is made up of breast cancer cells. This means that, for example, a secondary breast cancer in the liver behaves as and is treated as breast cancer, not a primary liver cancer.
Secondary breast cancer may be diagnosed years after primary breast cancer. Very occasionally, for some women, secondary breast cancer is their first diagnosis of breast cancer.
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Where breast cancer may spread to
If breast cancer spreads, the most common places it can spread to are the bones, lungs, liver, or occasionally the brain.This does not mean that secondary breast cancer will spread to all of these places.
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.
Local and regional recurrence
Breast cancer that comes back in the skin of the breast where the cancer was first removed, or in the operation scar, is known as a local recurrence.
Breast cancer may also come back in the lymph nodes in the armpit, behind the breast bone, or in the lower part of the neck. This is called 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.
These recurrences are usually less serious than secondary breast cancer. But you will 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 in the body may be treated with surgery, if possible, or with radiotherapy. Your treatment will depend on the treatments you received to remove and treat the primary breast cancer.