Metastatic breast cancer in the bones originates from breast tissue but spreads to the bones. It is an advanced form of cancer. Treatments involve managing symptoms rather than curing the cancer.

When breast cancer develops, it can spread to various parts of the body. Doctors refer to this as metastasis.

Some common sites for breast cancer metastasis are the:

  • bones
  • brain
  • lungs
  • liver

A diagnosis of metastatic breast cancer in the bones can be concerning. However, with appropriate care, people may be able to maintain a good quality of life.

This article discusses metastatic breast cancer in the bones, including the causes, diagnosis, and treatment options. It also considers the outlook for people with the disease.

A person holding their neck in pain after experiencing discomfort due to metastatic breast cancer in the bones.Share on Pinterest
Robert Niederbrach/EyeEm/Getty Images

Breast cancer is the second most common cancer in females. It can also affect males.

Metastatic cancer is cancer that has spread beyond its initial site to other parts of the body. In many cases, doctors refer to metastatic cancer as stage 4 cancer.

In people with breast cancer, a metastatic tumor develops when cancerous cells break away from the breast and come together in a different part of the body.

The cells can spread to different areas of the body depending on the type of cancer. Places where metastatic breast cancer typically occurs include the:

Metastatic breast cancer tumors most commonly form in the bones. Any cancer can spread to the bones, but many bone metastases come from:

Breast cancer metastases can form in any part of the skeleton. The cancer usually spreads to bones in the:

  • spine
  • ribs
  • pelvis
  • arms
  • legs

Metastatic tumors can develop in the bones before a person is aware they have breast cancer. On the other hand, metastatic tumors may not form until years after a person receives breast cancer treatment.

Metastatic cancer in the bones can lead to a decline in a person’s quality of life. It can also be fatal.

However, some people continue to live a full and long life after diagnosis.

A person’s outlook varies depending on:

  • how far the cancer has spread
  • breast cancer type
  • whether people experience skeletal-related events, such as bone fractures or spinal cord compression
  • whether people use treatment to reduce tumors
  • age
  • overall health

Some studies suggest people with breast cancer that has metastasized to the bones live 19–25 months on average.

However, the American Cancer Society states that people with distant breast cancer, which is breast cancer that has metastasized to other areas of the body, including the bones, are 30% as likely to live for at least another 5 years as people without this condition.

A 2017 study involving Danish people found that people with breast cancer that has spread to the bones have about a 51% 1-year survival rate. This is higher than the 1-year survival rates for other cancers that have spread to the bones, such as metastatic lung or prostate cancer.

When breast cancer metastasizes, it causes tumor cells to grow and form disruptive structures on the bones.

Bone remodeling, in which new bone tissue replaces old bone tissue to keep the body strong, is an important process that occurs throughout a person’s life.

Metastatic cancer in the bones affects the process of bone remodeling. The tumors that develop on the bones can be either:

  • osteolytic, which means they reduce bone tissue
  • osteoblastic, which means they cause an overproduction of bone

The symptoms of bone metastasis may include:

  • bone pain
  • fracture from bone weakness
  • nerve compression

If a person is experiencing symptoms and thinks they might have bone metastasis, they should contact a doctor for a diagnosis.

Doctors typically use at least one imaging scan when assessing for bone metastasis. Possible imaging tests include:

Bone metastasis can cause calcium and alkaline phosphatase (ALP) levels to increase. Calcium levels can also increase as bone breaks down and releases calcium into the blood. Therefore, a doctor may test for higher levels than usual using a blood test.

Additionally, a biopsy may help determine bone metastasis. To take a biopsy, a doctor uses a needle to collect a tissue sample from the potentially cancerous area of the bone. Trained specialists analyze the sample for signs of cancer.

Bone metastasis is almost always incurable. Treatment options typically focus on controlling the cancer by reducing or stopping its growth and minimizing symptoms through palliative care.

The goal of the treatment plan determines a person’s treatment options.

Some people may use bone-strengthening drugs, which include:

  • pamidronate
  • zoledronic acid
  • denosumab

These drugs can help by:

  • reducing the likelihood of skeletal-related events, such as fractures
  • relieving pain
  • reducing the need for other treatment options, such as chemotherapy

Other treatment options include:

People sometimes enter clinical trials when they are exploring treatment options. They may find opportunities that are not yet generally available.

The type and severity of symptoms a person experiences depend on the size of the metastatic tumors and where they are within the body.

People may seek or receive a referral to palliative care. These professionals specialize in supporting people and their families through serious illness. They can assist in managing symptoms, such as pain.

Some people may choose to add complementary and holistic medicine to their treatment plan and use methods such as:

  • acupuncture
  • meditation
  • hypnosis
  • massage
  • yoga

These techniques may reduce the severity of a person’s symptoms and improve their quality of life, but they should not be a substitute for medical treatment.

If a person chooses to use complementary and holistic medicine, they should make their cancer care team aware.

Having cancer can cause a range of emotions, but no one has to go through it alone.

Support is available through counseling, support groups, pain clinics, and more. A doctor may be able to offer a person advice on the options in their local area.

What is the prognosis when breast cancer spreads to the bones?

A person’s outlook with breast cancer that has metastasized to the bone can depend on many factors, including the type of cancer, location, and other personal factors, such as age.

The average time a person lives with breast cancer that has metastasized to the bone is 19–25 months.

Can you survive breast cancer that spreads to bones?

With treatment and today’s advances in cancer treatment, a person with breast cancer that has spread to the bones may live for years.

An individual’s outlook can vary depending on many factors, including the cancer type, previous treatments, and the person’s age.

What happens when breast cancer spreads to the bones?

Breast cancer can cause tumor cells to grow and disrupt structures in the bones. It can cause symptoms such as bone pain, fractures, and nerve compression.

Can breast cancer metastasis to bone be cured?

Breast cancer that has metastasized to the bones is currently almost always incurable. However, some people may live for years following diagnosis.

Researchers are exploring more effective treatments for many types of cancer that may potentially improve life expectancy and quality of life.

Breast cancer can spread to the bones through the process of metastasis. Metastasis can happen anytime from when a person first becomes aware that they have breast cancer to years after their recovery.

Treatments are available to control and reduce the cancer and ease symptoms. These treatments can prolong and improve the quality of life for a person with bone metastasis and may allow them to live a long and productive life.

Read this article in Spanish.