Symptoms of secondary breast cancer

Secondary breast cancer means that a cancer that began in the breast has spread to another part of the body. It is also called advanced or metastatic breast cancer.

The symptoms you have depend on where the cancer has spread to. The symptoms listed here can also be caused by other medical conditions so might not be a sign that the cancer has spread. 

You should contact your doctor if you're concerned about any symptoms.

Where does breast cancer spread to?

Breast cancer can spread to any part of the body. But most commonly spreads to the:

  • bones
  • liver
  • lungs
  • brain
Diagram showing M stages breast

General symptoms

The general symptoms of secondary breast cancer include:

  • tiredness (fatigue)
  • difficulty sleeping
  • loss of appetite
  • unexplained weight loss
  • feeling or being sick
  • pain

Symptoms of breast cancer spread to the bones

Bone pain is the most common symptom of breast cancer that has spread to the bones. Your bones might also become weaker and more likely to break (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:

  • tiredness
  • feeling sick (nausea)
  • constipation
  • irritability
  • confusion
  • thirst

Spinal cord compression

Breast cancer can spread to the bones in the spine causing pressure on the spinal cord. The pressure can stop the nerves from working normally. This is called spinal cord compression.

Back pain is usually the first symptom of spinal cord compression. 

Spinal cord compression is an emergency. You should contact your treatment team immediately if you are worried you might have spinal cord compression.

Symptoms if cancer has spread to the liver

You may have any of the following symptoms if cancer has spread to your liver:

  • tiredness
  • 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 and whites of the eyes (jaundice)
  • itchy skin

Symptoms of breast cancer 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
  • shortness of breath
  • ongoing chest infections
  • chest pain
  • coughing up blood
  • a build up of fluid between the chest wall and the lung (a pleural effusion)

Symptoms breast cancer spread to the brain

Cancer that has spread to the brain can cause different symptoms depending on where in the brain it spreads to. You might have any of these symptoms:

  • headaches
  • weakness or numbness in your limbs
  • memory problems
  • behaving in a way that is unusual for you
  • feeling or being sick
  • seizures (fits)
  • changes to your eyesight such as loss of sight (vision)
  • confusion and difficulty understanding
  • difficulty speaking

Controlling symptoms

You might have treatments such as:

  • chemotherapy
  • radiotherapy
  • targeted drugs
  • hormone therapies

These might shrink the cancer and help to control any symptoms you have.

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.

How you might feel

When breast cancer is advanced it can't be cured. But treatment can control it for some time and help to relieve symptoms.

Finding out that you can’t be cured is distressing and can be a shock. It’s common to feel uncertain and anxious. It's normal to not be able to think about anything else.

Lots of information and support are available to you, your family, and friends. It can help to find out more about your cancer and the treatments you might have. Many people find that knowing more about their situation can make it easier to cope. 

Talk to your doctor or nurse to understand:

  • what your diagnosis means
  • what is likely to happen
  • what treatment is available
  • how treatment can help you

You and your family will be looked after by a team of people who can provide you with support and information.

  • Advanced breast cancer: diagnosis and treatment
    National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), 2009. Last updated 2017

  • Improving supportive and palliative care for adults with cancer
    National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), 2004

  • AJCC Cancer Staging Manual (8th edition)
    American Joint Committee on Cancer
    Springer, 2017

  • Metastatic breast cancer
    BMJ Best Practice. Last updated February 2023

  • Symptom management in metastatic breast cancer
    W Irvin, H Muss and D Mayer
    Oncologist, 2011. Vol 16, Issue 9. Pages 1203-1214

  • The information on this page is based on literature searches and specialist checking. We used many references and there are too many to list here. Please contact with details of the particular issue you are interested in if you need additional references for this information.

Last reviewed: 
20 Jul 2023
Next review due: 
20 Jul 2026

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