If the cancer has spread beyond the breast and lymph nodes in the armpit to elsewhere in the body, this is called secondary breast cancer. The most common places that breast cancer cells may spread to are the bone, liver, lungs or brain. Secondary breast cancer can also spread to other lymph nodes, such as those in the lower part of the neck.
Although secondary breast cancer can spread to any of these areas, it most commonly affects just one or two parts of the body.
Treatment for secondary breast cancer depends on several factors, so can be different for each person. The most appropriate treatment depends on where the breast cancer has spread to. A man with secondary breast cancer affecting the bones will have different symptoms and may need different treatment from a man with secondary breast cancer in the liver.
It isn’t usually possible to cure breast cancer that has spread elsewhere in the body, but treatment may be able to control it for a long time. Treatment may also be used to reduce symptoms and improve quality of life.
The main treatments for cancer that has spread are hormonal therapy and chemotherapy, although surgery and radiotherapy may be helpful in some situations. The choice of treatment depends on where the cancer has spread to in the body, whether the cancer has oestrogen receptors (is ER positive) and which treatments, if any, have already been given.
Hormonal therapy is the most commonly used treatment for ER positive breast cancer that has spread. Hormonal therapy can be taken as tablets, as injections or as a combination of both. It’s usually taken for as long as it is effective. It is often used to treat secondary breast cancer in the bone.
Chemotherapy may be used if it’s known the cancer won’t respond to hormonal therapy (for example, if you have ER negative breast cancer). It may also be used to treat secondary cancer that is growing quickly or has spread to the liver or lungs. Herceptin may be given with chemotherapy in men who have HER2 positive breast cancer.
Radiotherapy may be used to shrink a tumour that is causing pain, especially in the bone. This is known as palliative radiotherapy.
Before you have any treatment, your cancer specialist and breast care nurse will talk it over with you and answer your questions.