Symptoms of secondary breast cancer
This page tells you about the symptoms of secondary breast cancer. There is information about
General symptoms of secondary breast cancer
The symptoms depend on where the breast cancer has spread to. But secondary breast cancer can cause general symptoms such as
- Feeling more tired than usual
- Low energy levels
- Feeling under the weather
- Having less appetite
Remember, most of these symptoms can also be caused by common illnesses like colds and flu, or injuries. If you have symptoms you are worried about that have lasted for more than a week or two, tell your GP, breast cancer specialist or breast care nurse.
Site specific symptoms of secondary breast cancer
- Cancer in the lymph nodes can cause a swelling or lump, either under your arm or in another part of the body. If the lymph nodes in your armpit are affected, your hand and arm may swell.
- Secondary breast cancer in the bone can cause aching or pain in the affected bone. Later, if the cancer is not treated, the bone can get weak and break. Sometimes calcium from the bone can build up in your blood. This can cause tiredness, nausea, irritability, confusion, constipation and thirst.
- If the breast cancer has spread to your liver you may feel ill and tired. You may also have discomfort on the right side of your abdomen, swelling of the abdomen, nausea, and loss of appetite.
- Women with secondary breast cancer in their lungs usually first notice a cough, or find that they get short of breath easily.
- If a secondary breast cancer develops in the brain, you may have headaches and feel sick. You may have weakness in a part of your body, or notice changes in your behaviour.
You can view and print the quick guides for all the pages in the Secondary breast cancer section.
Most women with secondary breast cancer will only have one or two, or a few, of the symptoms mentioned on this page. The symptoms vary depending on which part of your body the breast cancer has spread to. In some women who have secondary breast cancer, the cancer goes to only one or two places. But there are general symptoms such as
- Being more tired than usual
- Low energy levels
- Feeling under the weather
- Having a poor appetite
Remember that many of these general symptoms are the same as for
- The side effects of radiotherapy, chemotherapy, hormone therapy or biological therapy for primary breast cancer
General symptoms on their own may be caused by common illnesses and may not be due to secondary breast cancer. For example, if you have back pain, you may think breast cancer cells have spread to your spinal bones. But the pain is more likely to be caused by something like a muscle strain. If you have symptoms you are worried about that have lasted for more than a week or two, discuss them with your GP, cancer specialist, or breast care nurse.
If breast cancer cells have spread to the lymph nodes in the armpit you may feel a firm, often painless, swelling under your arm. This may also cause swelling in the arm called lymphoedema. The swelling occurs because it is more difficult for fluid to drain from the tissues in your arm if the lymph nodes are blocked. Your hand may also swell.
The swelling is uncomfortable and can be painful if it is severe. It can also make it more difficult for you to move your arm. As soon as you notice any swelling in your arm or hand, talk to your specialist or breast care nurse. Treatment may help to shrink the cancer and reduce the lymphoedema.
Breast cancer cells can also spread to lymph nodes in other parts of the body. The most common places are the nodes behind the breastbone or above or below the collar bones. Let your specialist or breast care nurse know if you find swelling or lumps in these areas.
Many women with secondary breast cancer in the bone first feel it as an ache in the affected bone. This can get quite painful. You may have trouble getting to sleep at night or difficulty moving around. You may find that you need to take painkillers.
Remember that if you have been treated for breast cancer, discuss any new pain with your doctor or breast care nurse. You may worry that a new ache or pain means that the cancer has spread. But it may be due to an everyday ache or muscle strain. Your doctor will look into any pain that lasts more than a few days or does not seem to be getting better. This can help to put your mind at rest.
Secondary cancer in the bone may damage the part of the bone affected by cancer cells. The more the bone is damaged, the weaker it gets. Pain and weakness can make it hard to move around. A very weak bone may break more easily too. This is known as a pathological fracture. A weakened bone will be treated with surgery or radiotherapy to strengthen it, or sometimes a combination of both treatments. If the bone fractures, this is also treated with surgery or radiotherapy.
Sometimes when bones are damaged by secondary cancer, the bone cells release calcium into the blood. This is called hypercalcaemia and can cause various symptoms such as
Remember that secondary breast cancer in a bone can be treated. Usually treatment can be started long before your bone becomes weak enough to break or cause a lot of pain.
There are books and booklets about secondary bone cancer, some of which are free. Look at our breast cancer reading list.
If the breast cancer has spread to your liver you may often feel ill and tired. You may also have
- Discomfort on the right side of your abdomen (where the liver is)
- Loss of appetite
- A swollen abdomen
Secondary breast cancer in the liver can cause pain if the cancer presses on the fibrous tissue covering the liver (the capsule).
The liver has a lot of functions in the body. One is to make bile to help digest food in the intestine. If the drainage channels leading from the liver are blocked by secondary cancer, bile may build up in the blood. This causes jaundice, where the skin and whites of the eyes become yellow and your skin may feel itchy.
The liver can still work well when part of it, or even most of it, is affected by cancer cells. And the symptoms of secondary breast cancer cells in the liver can usually be well controlled.
The first symptoms of secondary breast cancer in the lungs are usually a cough and breathlessness.
Cancer cells on the outside of the lungs can irritate the lining around the lungs (the pleura) and cause discomfort when breathing. Fluid may build up and press on the lungs. This is known as a pleural effusion. Some women notice quite a change in their breathing if this happens.
Breathing problems can be frightening. But there are ways to treat breathlessness from secondary breast cancer. These soon make it easier to breathe. You can find information in the section about controlling symptoms of secondary breast cancer.
The idea of secondary cancer affecting the brain can be very frightening. But the brain can work well even if part of it is put out of action by secondary cancer cells.
Secondary breast cancer in the brain can cause different symptoms depending on which part of the brain is affected.
- You may have headaches and feel sick
- The part of the body controlled by the site of the secondary cells may not work properly – for example, an arm or a leg may be weaker than usual or may feel numb
- You may have memory problems
- You may find yourself behaving in a way that is not usual for you
Very rarely, breast cancer can affect the eyes. If you notice any problems with your eyesight, tell your doctor. But remember that eye problems can have many causes so it may not be due to cancer. And if you are having some types of hormone therapy, chemotherapy or biological therapies, these can occasionally affect your vision.
You can phone the Cancer Research UK nurses on freephone 0808 800 4040. The lines are open from 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday. They will be happy to answer any questions that you have.
If you need someone to chat to, contact one of the cancer information organisations on our breast cancer organisations page. There are phone, letter or email services where you can talk through your concerns with experienced cancer nurses.
If you want to find people to share experiences with on line, you could use Cancer Chat – Cancer Research UK's online forum.
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