Cancer stages range from 1 to 4 and indicate the degree of the disease. A person may also refer to stage 4 as advanced or metastatic breast cancer.
Breast cancer is the second most common cancer in women, and if a person has stage 4 breast cancer, this means that the cancer cells have spread to other organs in their body, such as the lungs, lymph nodes, bones, skin, liver, or brain.
Stage 4 is the most serious and life-threatening stage of breast cancer, and most cases of stage 4 breast cancer develop long after you’ve first been diagnosed with cancer.
Facing stage 4 breast cancers is difficult, but following your doctor’s recommended treatment plan and practicing healthy lifestyle habits can help improve your outcome, and may significantly increase your lifespan and improve your quality of life.
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What’s The Prognosis?
Metastatic breast cancer isn’t the same for everyone who has it, and according to the National Breast Cancer Foundation (NBCF), your symptoms at stage 4 will depend on the degree to which cancer has spread in your body.
Although metastatic breast cancer has no cure, it can be treated and managed.
Stage 4 breast cancer may cause symptoms throughout the body, and a person with stage 4 breast cancer may experience some symptoms specific to the breast, as well as others that affect the whole body.
Breast-related symptoms include:
- nipple changes (flattening, inversion, and dimpling)
- a lump
- pitted skin (skin that looks like orange peel)
- swelling, and
Other symptoms that may appear throughout the body include:
- weakness or numbness
- a consistent dry cough
- chest pain
- loss of appetite
- constant nausea
- severe headaches or a migraine
- seizures and confusion
- loss of balance
- vision problems
In one study, people with stage 4 breast cancers reported feeling frustrated as a result of symptoms, such as depression, anxiety, sleep problems, fatigue, and sadness, restricting their activity.
It is crucial to address the mental health issues that a stage 4 breast cancer diagnosis may cause and to manage these symptoms, people can try yoga, meditation, and other stress-relieving techniques.
When breast cancer cells move to other areas of the body, they remain as breast cancer cells; e.g breast cancer that has spread to the lungs is still breast cancer, not lung cancer.
If you have stage 4 breast cancers, it’s important to work with an oncologist (a doctor that specializes in treating cancer) to develop a treatment plan.
Your treatment plan for stage 4 breast cancers will aim to stop any tumors you have from continued growing and spreading to other parts. Since tumors have already spread to other areas of your body at this stage of the disease, your treatment will likely be a systemic treatment that should target all of the areas involved.
Depending on your specific breast cancer characteristics and medical history, your oncologist may recommend a variety of treatment options that may include:
- hormone therapy (to treat hormone-sensitive cancers)
- radiation therapy (for brain and bone tumors), and
- surgery (rarely used in stage 4 breast cancer)
Your oncologist will take many factors like your age and overall health into consideration, as that can help them determine if therapies that have strong physical side effects, such as chemotherapy, are right for you.
If a particular treatment option hasn’t been effective for you in the past, doctors probably won’t use it to treat your stage 4 cancer.
Other targeted therapy treatments identify and attack specific cancer cells include:
- tyrosine kinase inhibitors
- cyclin-dependent kinase inhibitors
- PARP inhibitors
- monoclonal antibodies
- Treatment for bone metastasis may include bisphosphonates or denosumab to alleviate pain and reduce the risk of bone disease.
Regular screening is especially vital for a person who has certain genetic mutations or a personal or family history of cancer. A person with stage 4 breast cancer will usually already have a team of doctors working to treat the disease and reduce symptoms, and such a person should report any new symptoms to a doctor as soon as possible.