Stage 4 breast cancer occurs when cancer spreads to distant organs, tissue, or lymph nodes. Healthcare professionals may also refer to stage 4 breast cancer as advanced cancer, secondary breast cancer, or metastatic breast cancer.

Symptoms can vary based on where the cancer spreads to. Treatment for stage 4 breast cancer aims to control the cancer, alleviate the symptoms, and ensure optimal quality of life for the person living with it.

This article discusses the signs and symptoms of stage 4 breast cancer, the outlook, some treatment options, and more.

A healthcare professional checking the medical file of someone with stage 4 breast cancer.Share on Pinterest
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Stage 4 breast cancer occurs when cancerous cells spread to other areas of the body beyond the breast and local lymph nodes.

The American Cancer Society (ACS) notes that breast cancer most commonly spreads to the lungs, liver, and bones. It can also spread to other organs, including the distant lymph nodes, skin, and brain.

A doctor may diagnose stage 4 breast as either a new case, referred to as de novo, or as a recurrence of a previous breast cancer.

The ACS uses the Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results (SEER) Program database to track 5-year relative survival rates.

A relative survival rate helps give an idea of how long a person with a particular condition will live after receiving a diagnosis compared with those without the condition.

For example, if the 5-year relative survival rate is 70%, it means that a person with the condition is 70% as likely to live for 5 years as someone without the condition.

According to the ACS, the 5-year relative survival rate for stage 4 breast cancer is 28% for females and 22% for males.

The 5-year relative survival rate can also depend on the type of breast cancer a person has. For example, the 5-year survival rate for a person with triple-negative breast cancer is 12%, and it is 19% for those with inflammatory breast cancer.

The ACS states that survival rates are based on several factors but do not take into account every aspect of a person’s health and well-being.

Some factors that survival rates do not take into account include:

  • the person’s age and overall health
  • the size of the tumor
  • the cancer’s response to treatment
  • the cancer’s HER2 status
  • the presence of hormone receptors on cancer cells
  • new treatment options that improve the long-term outlook

For this reason, it is important to remember that these figures are estimates. A person can ask a healthcare professional about how their condition is likely to affect them.

According to one 2016 article, experts generally stage 4 breast cancer to be incurable. That said, treatments can help alleviate the symptoms, shrink the tumor, and prolong survival.

A person with stage 4 breast cancer should work closely with a doctor to determine what treatment options may work best for them.

The exact symptoms that a person may experience can vary based on the location of the cancer.

Some possible symptoms include:

Spread to bones

When breast cancer spreads to the bones, it can cause:

Spread to brain

Symptoms related to cancer that spread to the brain include:

  • headaches
  • memory problems
  • seizures
  • changes in personality and mood
  • stroke
  • slurred speech
  • blurred vision
  • dizziness
  • issues with balance

Spread to liver

When breast cancer spreads to the liver, it can cause symptoms such as:

Spread to lungs

If breast cancer spreads to the lungs, a person may experience:

Treatment cannot cure stage 4 breast cancer. The aim of treatment is to:

  • slow down and control the growth of the cancer
  • relieve any symptoms
  • increase life expectancy and quality of life

Researchers are always looking for new ways to treat stage 4 breast cancer.

Currently, the most common treatments that doctors may recommend include:

Stage 4 breast cancer can take both a physical and emotional toll on a person. An important part of treatment is helping the person cope with the emotions and stress associated with the diagnosis.

Palliative care may also be an option. This type of care provides an extra layer of support to people with serious conditions and their families. It helps address physical and emotional symptoms and can maximize the person’s quality of life while they live with advanced cancer.

Some potential options for mental health care include:

  • reaching out to family and friends
  • talking with a social worker
  • having regular meetings with a psychologist or psychiatrist
  • joining support groups

BreastCancer.org suggests seeking certified and experienced counselors and workers when possible. However, it also suggests that those who are having difficulty paying may want to seek counseling through a psychologist training program or clinic.

When cancer goes into remission, tests that look for cancer cannot detect it. A doctor may refer to this pathological complete response.

Treatment may also cause partial remission. This means that treatment has destroyed a portion of the cancer but that tests can still find the cancer.

Stage 4 breast cancer will not go away completely. However, Breastcancer.org notes that treatment can help control the cancer for years. It notes that the cancer can be active at times and go into remission at other times.

Because stage 4 breast cancer is not curable, it will not disappear and then recur.

Having stage 4 breast cancer means that cancer cells from the breast tissue have spread to distant parts of the body.

Signs and symptoms can vary based on where the cancer has spread to. However, they may include bone pain, unexplained weight loss, loss of appetite, and severe headaches, among others.

Stage 4 breast cancer is not currently curable. However, some treatment options can slow the progression of the cancer, alleviate the symptoms, and prolong survival.