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Treating Metastatic Breast Cancer

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What Happens When Breast Cancer Spreads to the Bones?

Medically Reviewed By Teresa Hagan Thomas PHD, BA, RN

Breast cancer can spread, or metastasize, to other parts of your body, including the bones. It can spread to any bone but most commonly affects the ribs, spine, and pelvis. Metastasis is typically associated with stage IV cancer. Breast cancer that has metastasized more commonly affects the bones than other parts of the body. Most people with stage IV breast cancer will experience cancer spreading to their bones.

This article explains what happens when breast cancer spreads to the bones. It also discusses symptoms, what causes breast cancer to spread, and treatment options for the condition.

What does it mean when breast cancer spreads to the bones?

Female in an exam room speaking with a doctor
The Good Brigade/Getty Images

When cancer spreads from where it originated to other areas of the body, this is known as metastasis. Common places breast cancer spreads include the:

  • bones
  • brain
  • liver
  • lungs

Cancer that spreads to the bones can lead to a variety of complications. These include broken bones, pain, and more serious issues such as paralysis.

The most common Trusted Source American Cancer Society Highly respected international organization Go to source bone cancer spreads to is the spine. Other common areas include the:

  • ribs
  • pelvis
  • upper arm bone, or humerus
  • upper leg bone, or femur
  • skull

More than 50% of people with stage IV breast cancer will experience bone metastasis.

What are the symptoms of breast cancer that has spread to the bones?

One of the most common signs that breast cancer has spread to the bones is a new, noticeable pain. The pain may be intermittent, and can initially resemble arthritis pain or strain from exercise.

If you experience new pain that does not change or get better with rest, contact your doctor. This is often an indication that breast cancer has spread to the bones.

Other symptoms you may experience with bone metastasis of breast cancer include:

  • weakness or fatigue
  • numbness
  • nausea or loss of appetite
  • dehydration
  • back or neck pain
  • difficulty urinating or having a bowel movement
  • sudden severe pain with an inability to move

Talk with your doctor if you experience any of these symptoms.

How is breast cancer that has spread to the bones diagnosed?

To determine if breast cancer has spread to the bones, your doctor will typically perform imaging tests. These can include:

  • X-rays
  • PET scans
  • CT scans
  • MRIs
  • bone scans

In addition to imaging tests, your doctor may order blood tests to check your calcium and alkaline phosphate levels. They may also perform a biopsy to help confirm the diagnosis.

What are treatments for breast cancer that has spread to the bones?

Once breast cancer has spread to the bones, it cannot be cured. However, treatments are available to help manage your symptoms.

The main goal of treatment is to slow and control the spread of cancer. In addition to managing your symptoms, it also aims to give you the best quality of life for as long as possible.

Treatment options for breast cancer that has spread to the bones include:

  • pain medications
  • bone-strengthening therapy
  • hormone therapy
  • targeted or biological therapies
  • chemotherapy
  • radiation therapy
  • surgery

Talk with your doctor to design the most effective treatment plan for your condition.

What is the outlook for someone with breast cancer that has spread to the bones?

Compared with spread to the liver or brain, spread of cancer to the bones has a less significant impact on outlook for someone with breast cancer.

According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), the 5-year relative survival rate for someone with distant breast cancer is 30% Trusted Source American Cancer Society Highly respected international organization Go to source . This means that around 30% of people with stage IV breast cancer will live for at least 5-years after diagnosis.

Relative survival rate indicates how long someone with a condition may live after a certain period of time. This is compared with someone without the condition of the same race, sex, and age. Relative survival rate is different from overall survival rate, which is the percentage of people still alive after a period of time following diagnosis.

It’s most important to remember that figures are estimates, and everyone is different. Talk with your doctor about your specific condition.

Other frequently asked questions

Teresa Hagan Thomas, Ph.D. has reviewed these common questions about breast cancer that has spread to the bones.

Can breast cancer that has spread to bones be cured?

Once breast cancer spreads to the bones, it cannot be cured. However, treatments are available to help manage your symptoms.

What stage is breast cancer that has spread to the bones?

Breast cancer that has spread to distant areas of the body, including the bones, is considered stage IV cancer.

Where is the first place breast cancer usually spreads?

Generally, breast cancer initially spreads to nearby lymph nodes. This includes the lymph nodes located under your arm. It also often spreads to the liver, lungs, brain, and bones.

Summary

When cancer spreads to other areas of the body, this is called metastasis. One area breast cancer commonly spreads to is the bones.

When breast cancer metastasizes in the bones, it can cause sudden and noticeable pain. It can also cause fatigue, back and neck pain, and weakness or numbness.

Treatment for breast cancer that has spread to the bones focuses on slowing and controlling the spread of cancer. It also aims to manage symptoms, such as pain.

If you experience sudden and unexpected pain or weakness, especially if you already have breast cancer, contact your doctor right away.

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Medical Reviewer: Teresa Hagan Thomas PHD, BA, RN
Last Review Date: 2023 Mar 9
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