The Women's Health Resource. On the web since 1997.

Metastatic Breast Cancer

Treatment

The majority of treatments for metastatic breast cancer focus on alleviating symptoms. Therapies will differ depending on the patient's history of treatment and how well she responds to specific therapies.

Surgery is rarely an option because the cancer is not usually confined to one specific spot on the organ. Radiation therapy may be used, depending on the extent to which the cancer has spread throughout an organ. The purpose of radiation therapy in cases of metastatic breast cancer is usually to shrink the cancer and provide pain relief. If cancer is only on one or more spots of the bone, for example, radiation may be done.

Systemic therapies such as chemotherapy or other drug therapies are usually given to advanced breast cancer patients because they affect the entire body (as opposed to localized treatments that only affect one area). Chemotherapy is treatment with anti-cancer drugs. Most courses are three to six months long and may be given daily, weekly, or monthly, depending on the body's response to the drugs. Chemotherapy sessions are not usually continuous; they include rest cycles because chemotherapy targets both healthy and cancerous cells.

Researchers are investigating whether aggressive, high-dose chemotherapy is effective in patients with advanced breast cancer. Some recent research shows that high-dose chemotherapy may improve a patient's outcome. However, other studies have shown no advantage.

In addition, a blood test, called CellSearch CTC, shows promise in helping to manage treatment of metastatic breast cancer. The test measures the number of tumor cells circulating in a sample of blood and can immediately inform physicians if a patient's treatment is working or needs modification. Research has shown that if a patient typically has more than five CTCs in a blood sample, survival may be shorter compared to patients with no CTCs. The CTC test can help physicians monitor whether a patient's treatment by determining whether the number of cancer cells is decreasing. This information can help determine whether changes are needed in a patient's treatment. While the test is used independently-typically before each chemotherapy treatment cycle-health experts do not recommend that it replace existing tests to monitor disease progression, such as the CAT scan or PET scan. Instead, it can be a useful supplement to those tests, which are often administrated every 12 to 24 weeks. Learn more about the CTC test.

In addition to chemotherapy, patients with advanced breast cancer may be treated with several drugs:


Drugs called bisphosphonates may also be used to treat bone metastases (see above section for more information).

Coping With Metastatic Breast Cancer

In a survey sponsored by the National Alliance of Breast Cancer Organizations (NABCO), the majority of the 200 women with metastatic breast cancer surveyed said the public perceives them as being "near death with little or no time to live." However, nearly 20% of women with metastatic breast cancer live five years or longer. It is important for patients and physicians to be realistic about the outcome of advanced breast cancer, but at the same time, the survival rate  (16%) is based on statistics. Each woman is unique and her situation will also be unique.

There are several resources available to help women cope with metastatic breast cancer. Here are a few:

  • The National Cancer Institute provides information on coping with advanced breast cancer.
  • Contact the American Cancer Society for published information and local support groups at: 1.800.227.2345.
  • The Y-ME National Breast Cancer Organization has a 24-hour hot-line women may call for services and support: 1.800.211.2141.
  • The Susan G. Komen Foundation provides a 24-hour helpline that is answered by trained, caring volunteers whose lives have been personally touched by breast cancer. Helpline volunteers give timely and accurate information to callers with breast health and breast cancer concerns: 1.800.462.9273.
  • Talk to a counselor, family member, friend, breast cancer survivor, therapist, or clergyman or woman.

Additional Resources and References