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Metastatic Breast Cancer FAQs

What is metastatic breast cancer?

Metastatic breast cancer describes the stage of breast cancer when it has spread to areas of the body outside of the breast and local draining lymph nodes. It is also called stage IV or secondary breast cancer. Patients can be diagnosed with metastatic disease at the time of their breast cancer diagnosis or after a period of time has elapsed since their initial early breast cancer was treated. This is called relapsed disease.

When can breast cancer relapse?

Breast cancer can relapse at any time, even many years after early breast cancer has been treated. The timing of relapse depends on the type of breast cancer (e.g. hormone receptor positive, hormone receptor negative, HER2 positive) and often these different types of breast cancer have different patterns of relapse.

What sites in the body can be affected by metastatic breast cancer?

Breast cancer can relapse locally or in distant sites around the body. These include sites such as the liver, lung, skin, bone and brain.

How is metastatic disease diagnosed?

Metastatic breast cancer is usually diagnosed after a patient presents with a symptom (such as pain) that could be related to relapsed disease. Imaging such as a CT scan or a bone scan is required to confirm the diagnosis. Occasionally metastatic disease is found even when no symptoms are apparent.

What treatments are used in metastatic breast cancer?

There are many different treatments used in metastatic disease. These are usually personalised to the patient and are selected based on the type of breast cancer, the site and extent of spread as well as the patient’s decision as to what treatments are acceptable to them. These may include treatments such as:

  • Hormonal therapy
  • Chemotherapy
  • Targeted therapies
  • Radiation therapy
  • Clinical trials of novel therapies (e.g. immunotherapy)

What is radiation therapy?

Radiation therapy is a form of targeted therapy that uses high-energy particles or waves (such as x-rays, electrons, protons) to kill cancer cells. For patients with breast cancer this may be used after breast surgery to treat the surrounding breast and/or regional tissues to increase the chance of cure. For patients with metastatic breast cancer, radiation therapy can be used to treat areas of distant spread (e.g. bone or brain).

Why is wellness important for patients with metastatic breast cancer?

An important aim of the treatments used for patients with metastatic disease is not only to control the cancer and prevent it from spreading, but also to keep women well and improve their quality of life. This means physically, emotionally and psychologically. This is a major focus in treating patients at the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Wellness & Research Centre (ONJ Centre).

What is the role of complementary therapies in breast cancer?

Complementary therapies are used by patients, often alongside conventional medical therapies, to help improve their quality of life and to remain well. These therapies may include dietary changes, exercise or supplements and should be discussed with your treating specialist.

What proportion of women in Australia are affected by breast cancer?

In Australia, approximately one in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer during their lifetime. The majority of these women will be cured with multimodality treatments including surgery, radiation therapy and systemic drug therapies.

What research is ONJCRI undertaking into metastatic breast cancer?

When breast cancer recurs and has spread to distant organs, it is often more difficult to treat with conventional therapies due to the cancer becoming resistant to these therapies. The ONJCRI is undertaking research into metastatic disease through our Translational Breast Cancer Program to develop improved therapies for patients with recurrent or progressive breast cancer.

What is ONJCRI seeking to achieve with its research?

The intent of our research into metastatic breast cancer is to improve the treatments available to patients with this disease, to increase their chance of long-term survival and, ultimately, to reduce the burden of metastatic disease by preventing its occurrence.

How can I support the breast cancer research program at the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Research Institute?

We welcome donations to our breast cancer research program. To donate please select 'Research' from the options below or phone +61 3 9496 9128.

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