Metastatic breast cancer (also called stage IV or advanced breast cancer) is breast cancer that has spread beyond the breast to other organs in the body (most often the bones, lungs, liver or brain).
Although metastatic breast cancer has spread to another part of the body, it is considered and treated as breast cancer. For example, breast cancer that has spread to the bones is still breast cancer (not bone cancer) and is treated with breast cancer drugs, rather than treatments for a cancer that began in the bones.
Some women have metastatic breast cancer when they are first diagnosed, but this is not common in the U.S. (five percent of diagnoses) .
More commonly, metastatic breast cancer arises months or years after a person has completed treatment for early or locally advanced (stage I, II or III) breast cancer. This is sometimes called distant recurrence.
The risk of breast cancer returning and metastasizing varies from person to person and depends greatly on the biology of the tumor and the stage at the time original diagnosis.
Learn more about breast cancer staging.
Learn more about breast cancer recurrence.
As hard as it is to hear, metastatic breast cancer cannot be cured. Unlike breast cancer that remains in the breast or nearby lymph nodes, you cannot get rid of all the cancer that has spread to other organs. This does not mean, however, that metastatic breast cancer cannot be treated.
Treatment of metastatic breast cancer focuses on length and quality of life. Your treatment plan is guided by many factors, including:
If the cancer is hormone receptor-positive, the first treatment is hormone therapy (learn more). If the cancer is HER2-positive, anti-HER2 drugs such as trastuzumab (Herceptin) may be given (learn more).
Chemotherapy and radiation therapy can be used to shrink or slow the growth of tumors or to ease symptoms of the cancer itself (learn more). However, these therapies have side effects that can affect quality of life.
Talking about quality of life issues with your health care providers and your family can help you decide what treatments are best for you. Joining a support group may help you think through these issues.
Learn more about factors that affect treatment options.
Learn about emerging areas in treatment.
Learn about symptom management and supportive care.
Learn about pain management.
Learn about support.
Although the exact treatment for metastatic breast cancer varies from person to person, guidelines help ensure quality care. These guidelines are based on the latest research and the consensus of experts.
The American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) and National Comprehensive Care Network (NCCN) are two respected organizations that regularly update and post their guidelines online. The National Cancer Institute (NCI) also has overviews of treatment options.
Survival rates for metastatic breast cancer vary greatly from person to person.
One study found that about 37 percent of women lived at least three years after diagnosis with metastatic breast cancer . Some women may live 10 or more years beyond diagnosis . It is important to note that all these findings are based on women diagnosed before some of the newer treatments for metastatic breast cancer were available.
Modern treatments for both early stage and metastatic breast cancer have improved survival for women diagnosed today.
Tumors often develop resistance (stop responding) to drugs used to treat metastatic breast cancer. So, it is common to change therapies fairly often.
You usually start one drug therapy, and are followed to see whether:
Every few months, you will have a physical exam and imaging tests (such as an X-ray or a CT scan) to see if the cancer is responding to the treatment. This is called “restaging.”
If the treatment is working (and you can deal with the side effects) at the time of restaging, then the treatment is typically continued. If the treatment is no longer working, then you may be advised to switch to a different drug.
In some cases, blood tests for tumor markers may also be used to help monitor metastatic breast cancer. You may be tested every few months for the tumor markers called cancer antigen 15-3 (CA15-3) or cancer antigen 27.29 (CA27.29) . These tests are similar. So, usually one, but not both, of these tests are done.
There is no test score that means the tumor has spread (that the cancer has gotten worse). Rather, whether the test score rises or falls over time for a person may give some information on tumor spread.
Tumor marker tests are not helpful in every case. Some people with rising tumor marker levels do not have tumor growth and some people with tumor growth have normal tumor marker levels.
Health care providers do not make treatment decisions based upon tumor marker testing alone. However, they may combine the information from a tumor marker test with information on your symptoms and findings from imaging tests (such as bone scans). This combined information can help your providers understand if treatments are helping control tumor growth.
Talk with your provider about whether tumor marker testing is right for you.
Hormone therapy is usually the first treatment for metastatic breast cancers that are hormone receptor-positive. These drugs work by preventing the cancer cells from getting the estrogen they need to grow.
Some hormone therapies, like tamoxifen, attach to the estrogen receptors on the cancer cells and block estrogen from attaching to the receptor. Other therapies, like aromatase inhibitors, lower estrogen levels in the body so the cancer cells cannot get the estrogen they need.
For women, the choice of hormone therapy depends on menopausal status and any past hormone treatment for early breast cancer .
Some hormone therapy drugs (like tamoxifen and aromatase inhibitors) are given in pill form. Others (like goserelin) are given by injection. Find a list of hormone therapy drugs used to treat metastatic breast cancer and whether they are given in pill form or by injection.
Learn more about hormone therapies.
For premenopausal women with metastatic breast cancer, hormone therapy almost always begins with ovarian suppression. Ovarian suppression lowers hormone levels in the body so the tumor cannot get the estrogen it needs to grow. This may involve surgery to remove the ovaries (oophorectomy) or, more often, drugs (such as goserelin) to stop the ovaries from producing hormones.
Tamoxifen is also used to treat metastatic breast cancer in premenopausal women. However, it may not be an option for women whose cancer progressed during past tamoxifen treatment.
Combining ovarian suppression and tamoxifen improves survival over either treatment alone [5-6].
After menopause, hormone therapy for women can be an aromatase inhibitor, tamoxifen or another anti-estrogen drug (such as fulvestrant). If the first hormone therapy stops working and the cancer starts to grow again, a second hormone therapy can be used. If the second drug stops working, another can be tried.
At some point, even though it may be years down the line, hormone therapy almost always stops being effective. At this point, chemotherapy may be recommended.
Ovarian suppression is not helpful for postmenopausal women because their ovaries have already stopped producing large amounts of estrogen. (Postmenopausal women still make a small amount of estrogen in fat tissue and the adrenal glands.)
Find a list of hormone therapy drugs commonly used to treat metastatic breast cancer.
mTOR (mammalian target of rapamycin) inhibitors are a class of targeted therapy drugs that may increase the benefit of hormone therapy.
The mTOR inhibitor everolimus (Afinitor) is FDA-approved for the treatment of hormone receptor-positive, HER2-negative metastatic breast cancers in postmenopausal women who have been treated with the aromatase inhibitor letrozole or anastrozole.
Studies have shown the combination of everolimus and the aromatase inhibitor exemestane can slow the growth of such cancers better than exemestane alone [7-8].
Everolimus is given in pill form.
Side effects of everolimus include mouth ulcers, infections, rash, fatigue, diarrhea, decreased appetite and in rare cases, lung problems [7-8].
CDK4 and CDK6 are enzymes important in cell division. CDK4/6 inhibitors are a new class of drugs designed to interrupt the growth of cancer cells.
The CDK4/6 inhibitor palbociclib (Ibrance) in combination with hormone therapy is FDA-approved for the treatment of hormone receptor-positive, HER2-negative metastatic breast cancer.
Study findings have shown that palbociclib in combination with the aromatase inhibitor letrozole can increase the time before cancer spreads better than letrozole alone . Palbociclib is given in pill form.
Other CDK4/6 inhibitors are under study for use in metastatic breast cancer treatment.
The more common side effects of palbociclib include low white blood cell counts, low red blood cell counts (anemia), fatigue, nausea, mouth sores, hair thinning, diarrhea and in rare cases, blood clots [9-10].
Chemotherapy is a first treatment for people with:
One benefit of chemotherapy is response time. Chemotherapy can shrink tumors faster than hormone therapy.
As with hormone therapies, if the first chemotherapy drug (or combination of drugs) stops working and the cancer grows again, a second or third drug can be used.
The use of each type of chemotherapy drug (or combination of drugs) for metastatic breast cancer is called a “line” of treatment. For example, the first chemotherapy used is called the “first-line” treatment and the second is called the “second-line” treatment.
With each new drug, it is less likely the cancer will shrink. And, if the cancer does shrink, it often does so for a shorter period of time with each new drug. It is not uncommon for people to have multiple lines of chemotherapy regimens (often four or more) over the course of their treatment for metastatic breast cancer.
Learn more about chemotherapy.
Find a list of chemotherapy drugs commonly used to treat metastatic breast cancer.
About 20 percent of breast cancers have high amounts of a protein called HER2 on the surface of the cancer cells (called HER2-positive breast cancer) [11-12]. The HER2 protein is important for cancer cell growth.
HER2 status is determined by testing the tumor tissue.
Learn more about HER2 status.
Trastuzumab (Herceptin) is a specially made antibody that targets HER2-positive cancer cells. When attached to the HER2 protein, trastuzumab slows or stops the growth of these cells. Trastuzumab is only used to treat HER2-positive breast cancers.
Trastuzumab is given through an IV (intravenously).
Clinical trials in women with HER2-positive metastatic breast cancer have shown that trastuzumab can shrink tumors and slow cancer growth when used alone or combined with chemotherapy [13-15].
Trastuzumab is used as a first treatment for HER2-positive metastatic breast cancer as well as a treatment for HER2-positive metastatic cancer that has started to progress with chemotherapy [4,13-15].
In some cases, HER2-positive tumors may spread to the brain. Because trastuzumab is not able to cross the blood-brain barrier, it is not used to treat brain metastases.
Trastuzumab has fewer side effects than chemotherapy. It does not cause hair loss, nausea or vomiting, and has no effect on bone marrow.
In rare cases, deaths due to heart or lung problems have been linked to the use of trastuzumab [4,13]. Although the chance of such an event is small, discuss this risk with your health care provider before starting treatment. Your heart will be checked before and during treatment to help ensure there are no problems.
For a summary of research studies on the use of trastuzumab in treating metastatic breast cancer, visit the Breast Cancer Research Studies section.
Pertuzumab (Perjeta) is also an antibody that targets HER2-positive cancer cells, but in a different way than trastuzumab.
Pertuzumab is FDA-approved as a first treatment of HER2-positive metastatic breast cancers.
Pertuzumab is given through an IV.
Findings from a randomized controlled trial showed that pertuzumab in combination with trastuzumab and chemotherapy slowed the growth of HER2-positive metastatic breast cancer and increased survival better than trastuzumab and chemotherapy alone .
Possible side effects of pertuzumab include diarrhea, rash, vomiting, headache and dry skin .
Trastuzumab emtansine (T-DM1, Kadcyla) is a type of targeted therapy for HER2-positive metastatic breast cancer. T-DM1 consists of trastuzumab and a chemotherapy called DM1. Combining these drugs allows the targeted delivery of chemotherapy to HER2-positive cancer cells.
T-DM1 is FDA-approved for the treatment of HER2-positive metastatic breast cancers that have progressed on trastuzumab and a taxane-based chemotherapy.
T-DM1 is given through an IV.
Findings from a randomized controlled trial showed T-DM1 increased overall survival better than lapatinib plus the chemotherapy drug capecitabine for women with metastatic HER2-positive breast cancers .
Possible side effects of T-DM1 include nausea, fatigue, muscle and joint pain, low platelet counts, headache and constipation. It can also cause severe liver and heart problems. It does not cause hair loss .
Tyrosine-kinase inhibitors, such as lapatinib (Tykerb), are a class of drugs that target enzymes important for cell functions (called tyrosine-kinase enzymes). These drugs can block tyrosine-kinase enzymes at many points along the cancer growth pathway.
Lapatinib is FDA-approved for the treatment of HER2-positive metastatic breast cancer in women who have already had chemotherapy and trastuzumab.
Lapatinib is taken in pill form.
Lapatinib combined with chemotherapy can increase time to cancer spread and improved overall survival compared to chemotherapy alone in women with HER2-positive metastatic breast cancer [19-20].
Some studies have shown lapatinib combined with the aromatase inhibitor letrozole may increase time to cancer spread compared to the use of letrozole alone in women with hormone receptor-positive, HER2-positive metastatic breast cancer [21-22].
One clinical trial found lapatinib combined with trastuzumab may increase time to cancer spread compared to the use of trastuzumab alone in women with HER2-positive metastatic breast cancer .
Early findings show lapatinib holds promise for HER2-positive metastatic cancer with brain metastases as it can pass through the blood-brain barrier [24-26]. Most therapies, including trastuzumab, cannot cross the blood-brain barrier. In rare cases, lapatinib can help shrink or slow the growth of brain metastases [24-26].
Side effects of lapatinib include diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, rash and fatigue. In rare cases, it has been linked to liver and lung problems [19-21,23].
For a summary of research studies on the use of lapatinib in treating metastatic breast cancer, visit the Breast Cancer Research Studies section.
Chronicles of Hope
*Please note, the information provided within Komen Perspectives articles is only current as of the date of posting. Therefore, some information may be out of date at this time.
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