Metastatic breast cancer (MBC) occurs when breast cancer spreads outside of the breasts to another part of the body, such as the liver.

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Approximately 30% of people who receive a diagnosis of early stage breast cancer will go on to develop metastatic, or stage 4, breast cancer. The liver is the third most common organ for breast cancer metastasis.

This article explains what to expect when breast cancer spreads to the liver.

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MBC is a late stage cancer that starts in a person’s breast tissue. When breast cancer metastasizes, it means that its tissue spreads to distant organs, such as the liver, brain, or bones.

When MBC spreads to another organ, such as the liver, the diagnosis is still breast cancer.

Metastasis refers to the growth of additional cancerous cells beyond the location of the original cancerous tumor.

Breast cancer can metastasize anywhere in the body, most commonly affecting the:

  • lymph nodes
  • bones
  • lungs
  • liver
  • brain

Some research suggests there may be something about a person’s liver environment that predisposes their cancer to metastasize to that organ.

However, according to most research, the exact mechanics of how breast cancer spreads specifically to the liver are still not known.

Metavivor, an organization dedicated to researching MBC, states that 1 in 8 women will develop breast cancer during their lifetime. Of those, about 1 in 3 will experience metastasis.

For men, about 1 out of 1,000 will develop breast cancer during their life, but under 2% will experience metastasis.

The liver is the third most common area that MBC affects. Researchers are still not certain exactly how breast cancer spreads to the liver.

The current hypothesis indicates that it spreads to the liver when the cancer cells and the liver are compatible. This is known as the seed and soil hypothesis.

In one 2019 study, researchers found that a few distinguishing factors may place a person at higher risk of developing liver metastasis. These include:

  • age
  • menopausal status
  • number of lymph node metastases
  • tumor size

Earlier or more frequent screening for liver metastasis may help improve outlook as a doctor may find the tumor sooner.

Breast cancer that spreads to the liver does not usually cause any symptoms.

A doctor is more likely to find the cancer on a liver function test. The liver function test uses a blood sample to determine the level of liver enzymes and proteins in the blood.

If liver metastasis does cause symptoms, they can include:

There is currently no cure for MBC, so treatment usually focuses on slowing the growth of the tumor and improving a person’s quality of life. Treatment can also help increase the person’s lifespan.

Treatment for MBC may not be as aggressive as it is in the earlier stages of breast cancer. In the earlier stages of breast cancer, doctors try to remove or destroy the cancer altogether.

If it metastasizes, doctors use medication to help manage the cancer and slow its growth.

According to the American Cancer Society, systematic medications are the main treatment for MBC. These include:

A doctor may suggest a combination of these therapies. They may also recommend radiation therapy or surgery in some situations.

People with MBC can discuss with a doctor the best treatments for them. Some factors to consider include:

  • symptoms present
  • the size of the tumor in the liver
  • previous treatments
  • whether the cancer has spread to other organs
  • the person’s general health
  • age or menopause status
  • features of the cancer

There is no cure for MBC. Someone with MBC that has spread to the liver may live for several more years with successful treatment.

Treatment tends to focus on slowing the growth and spread as well as managing the symptoms.

Based on their age or overall health, a person may decide to discontinue treatment. In these cases, the person should talk with a treatment team and their family about end-of-life care.

How long can you live with metastasis to the liver?

According to the American Cancer Society, the 5-year survival rate is about 30% for distant cancer, which it defines as “cancer has spread to distant parts of the body such as the lungs, liver or bones.”

Specifically, the 3-year survival rate for breast cancer liver metastasis is about 38%, which is similar to the rate for lung metastasis but not as favorable as bone metastasis.

With treatment, a person may be able to live for several years. The person should talk with a doctor about their individual outlook, as several factors can affect successful treatment.

There is currently no cure for MBC that spreads to the liver.

With treatment, people may be able to slow the growth of the tumor and improve their quality of life. A person can talk with a doctor about the best treatment options for them.