What are the symptoms of secondary breast cancer?

The symptoms of secondary breast cancer depend on where in the body the cancer has spread.

These symptoms can be caused by other conditions. But tell your GP, cancer doctor or specialist nurse if you have any. Always tell them if you develop new symptoms, especially if they last more than 2 weeks.

General symptoms of secondary breast cancer can include:

  • feeling more tired than usual
  • losing your appetite
  • feeling generally unwell for no obvious reason.

The symptoms we mention here may make you feel anxious or frightened. But there are different treatments that help control the cancer and relieve these symptoms. We have more information about controlling symptoms of secondary breast cancer.

Symptoms of secondary breast cancer in the bones

The most common symptom of secondary breast cancer in the bone is an ongoing ache in an area of bone. It may be painful when you move around, or you may find it difficult to sleep because of the pain.

Aches and pains are common. They can be caused by different things, such as hormonal therapy or the menopause. But it is important to tell your cancer doctor if your symptoms continue.

If the cancer has spread to the bones, it can often be controlled for many years with different treatments.

If you have secondary breast cancer in the bones, you may develop other bone problems. These are not common when you have just been diagnosed, but it is important to know about them. These include:

We have more information about  controlling the symptoms of secondary breast cancer in the bones.

Symptoms of secondary breast cancer in the lungs

The first symptom of a secondary cancer in the lungs may be a cough that does not get better or feeling breathless.

If cancer cells are in the tissues that cover the lungs (the pleura), it can lead to irritation. This causes fluid to build up and press on the lungs, making you breathless. This is called a pleural effusion.

We have more information about controlling the symptoms of secondary breast cancer in the lungs.

Symptoms of secondary breast cancer in the liver

The liver is under the lower ribs on the right side of the tummy (abdomen). If there is a secondary cancer in the liver, you may have discomfort or pain in this area. Other symptoms can include:

  • feeling sick (nausea)
  • losing your appetite
  • feeling very tired and generally unwell.

Sometimes secondary breast cancer in the liver causes a build-up of bile in the blood. This is called jaundice. Symptoms include yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes, and itchy skin.

Symptoms of secondary breast cancer in the brain

A secondary cancer in the brain may cause symptoms such as headaches and feeling or being sick. These symptoms are caused by increased pressure in the brain. They may be worse first thing in the morning.

Other symptoms will depend on the part of the brain that is affected. They can include:

  • weakness or numbness in an arm or leg
  • dizziness
  • loss of balance
  • changes in mood or personality
  • seizures (fits).

It is normal to feel very worried about a cancer that affects the brain. Treatment can usually quickly control the symptoms of a secondary cancer in the brain

The meninges

Sometimes breast cancer cells spread to tissue that covers the brain and spinal cord. This is called the meninges. This is called meningeal metastases or carcinomatous meningitis. It causes symptoms similar to secondary cancer in the brain or spinal cord compression.

Symptoms of secondary breast cancer on or just below the skin

Secondary cancer that affects the skin may be either:

  • a firm painless lump on the skin
  • many lumps of different sizes on the skin – these are called skin secondaries
  • an area of skin that is red, darker or swollen (inflamed).

Other possible symptoms include pain, bleeding and sometimes infection.

Skin secondaries can appear near the area of the primary cancer, such as the skin of the chest or around the scar. Less commonly, they may develop on other areas of skin, such as the scalp, neck, back and upper limbs.

About our information

  • References

    Below is a sample of the sources used in our secondary breast cancer information. If you would like more information about the sources we use, please contact us at cancerinformationteam@macmillan.org.uk

    National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE). Advanced breast cancer: diagnosis and treatment. Clinical Guideline [CG81]. Updated 2017. Available from: www.nice.org.uk/guidance/cg81 (accessed November 2021).

    BMJ best practice. Metastatic breast cancer. Available from: https://bestpractice.bmj.com/topics/en-gb/718 (accessed November 2021).

  • Reviewers

    This information has been written, revised and edited by Macmillan Cancer Support’s Cancer Information Development team. It has been reviewed by expert medical and health professionals and people living with cancer. It has been approved by Senior Medical Editors; Dr Russell Burcombe, Consultant Clinical Oncologist; Professor Mike Dixon, Professor of Surgery & Consultant Surgeon; and Dr Rebecca Roylance, Consultant Medical Oncologist.

    Our cancer information has been awarded the PIF TICK. Created by the Patient Information Forum, this quality mark shows we meet PIF’s 10 criteria for trustworthy health information.

The language we use

We want everyone affected by cancer to feel our information is written for them.

We want our information to be as clear as possible. To do this, we try to:

  • use plain English
  • explain medical words
  • use short sentences
  • use illustrations to explain text
  • structure the information clearly
  • make sure important points are clear.

We use gender-inclusive language and talk to our readers as ‘you’ so that everyone feels included. Where clinically necessary we use the terms ‘men’ and ‘women’ or ‘male’ and ‘female’. For example, we do so when talking about parts of the body or mentioning statistics or research about who is affected.

You can read more about how we produce our information here.

Date reviewed

Reviewed: 01 July 2023
Next review: 01 July 2026
Trusted Information Creator - Patient Information Forum
Trusted Information Creator - Patient Information Forum

Our cancer information meets the PIF TICK quality mark.

This means it is easy to use, up-to-date and based on the latest evidence. Learn more about how we produce our information.