Find out about the symptoms of advanced breast cancer.
Advanced breast cancer means that a cancer that began in the breast has spread to another part of the body. Advanced cancer can also be called secondary cancer.
It might not mean that you have advanced cancer if you have the symptoms described below. They can be caused by other conditions.
- feeling tired
- low energy levels
- feeling under the weather
- having less appetite
Where cancer can spread
The most common places for breast cancer to spread to are the lymph nodes, bone, liver, lungs and brain. The symptoms you may experience will depend on where in the body the cancer has spread to. You might not have all of the symptoms mentioned here.
If you have symptoms that you are worried about, discuss them with your GP, cancer specialist or breast care nurse.
Symptoms if cancer has spread to the lymph nodes
Lymph nodes are part of a system of tubes and glands in the body that filters body fluids and fights infection.
The most common symptom if cancer has spread to the lymph nodes is that they feel hard or swollen. You might have any of the following symptoms if your cancer has spread to the lymph nodes:
- a lump or swelling under your armpit
- swelling in your arm or hand (lymphoedema)
- a lump or swelling in your breast bone or collar bone area
One of the first places breast cancer can spread to is the lymph nodes under the arm on the same side as the breast cancer. This is not advanced cancer.
Symptoms if cancer has spread to the bones
You may have any of these symptoms if your cancer has spread to the bones:
- an ache or pain in the affected bone
- a weakened bone which is more prone to break or fracture
Sometimes when bones are damaged by advanced cancer, the bones release calcium into the blood. This is called hypercalcaemia and can cause various symptoms such as:
- feeling sick (nausea)
Symptoms if cancer has spread to the liver
You may have any of the following symptoms if cancer has spread to your liver:
- discomfort or pain on the right side of your tummy (abdomen) where the liver is
- feeling sick (nausea)
- loss of appetite
- a swollen abdomen
- yellowing of the skin or itchy skin (jaundice)
Symptoms if cancer has spread to the lungs
You may have any of these symptoms if your cancer has spread into the lungs:
- a cough that doesn’t go away
- ongoing chest infections
- coughing up blood
- a buildup of fluid between the chest wall and the lung (a pleural effusion)
Symptoms if cancer has spread to the brain
Cancer that has spread to the brain can cause different symptoms depending on where in the brain is affected. You might have any of these symptoms:
- headaches or feel sick
- weakness or numbness in your limbs
- memory problems
- behaving in a way that is unusual for you
- problems with your eyesight
Treatment to control these symptoms
Chemotherapy, radiotherapy, biological and hormone therapies can all be used to treat advanced breast cancer. These might shrink the cancer and help to control any symptoms you have.
Your doctor or specialist nurse can:
- give you medicines
- help you to get equipment that you need
- suggest other ways of controlling your symptoms
- refer you to a symptom control team (a palliative care team)
Symptom control team
There are symptom control teams in most cancer units. They can help you to stay as well as possible for as long as possible. They are also in hospices and many general hospitals.
Most symptom control teams have home care services so they can visit you at home.