What are the symptoms of secondary breast cancer?

The symptoms of secondary breast cancer depend on which part of the body the cancer has spread to.

You may also have some general symptoms. These can include:

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

These symptoms can be caused by other conditions. But speak to your GP, cancer doctor or specialist nurse if you have any of them. Always tell them if you have new symptoms, especially if they last more than 1 or 2 weeks.

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 a secondary breast cancer in the bone is an ongoing ache in an area of bone. It may be painful when you move around. You may find it difficult to sleep because of the pain.

Secondary breast cancer in the bones may also cause other bone problems. These include:

  • high levels of calcium in the blood (hypercalcaemia)
  • a break in a bone
  • pressure on the spinal cord called spinal cord compression, which needs urgent treatment.

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 symptoms of a secondary cancer in the lungs can include:

  • feeling breathless
  • a cough that does not get better.

Sometimes cancer cells in the tissues covering the lungs (pleura) cause fluid to build up. This is called a pleural effusion. It can make you feel very breathless.

We have more information about treating the symptoms caused by 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). Secondary cancer in the liver may cause discomfort or pain in this area. Other symptoms can include:

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

Sometimes, secondary 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 skin

Secondary breast cancers can sometimes develop on or just below the skin. This is called skin secondaries or metastases. This may happen in some women who already have secondary breast cancer.

Secondary breast cancer in the skin is not the same as local recurrence. With a local recurrence the cancer comes back in the treated breast or scar, but there are no secondary cancers anywhere else in the body.

Secondary cancer that affects the skin may look like either:

  • a firm painless lump on the skin or many lumps of different sizes
  • an area of skin that is red and swollen (inflamed).

Other possible symptoms include pain, bleeding, and sometimes infection.

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

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 (meninges). Doctors call this meningeal metastases or carcinomatous meningitis. It causes symptoms similar to a secondary cancer in the brain.

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). www.nice.org.uk Pathways Advanced Breast Cancer, updated 2017 (accessed November 2017).

    F Cardoso et al 3rd ESO–ESMO. International Consensus Guidelines for Advanced Breast Cancer. (ABC 3) 2016.

    Bourke M et al Effective Treatment of Intractable Cutaneous Metastases of Breast Cancer with Electrochemotherapy: Ten-year Audit of Single Centre Experience. Breast Cancer Research and Treatment January 2017, Volume 161, Issue 2, pp 289–297.


  • 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.