What is secondary breast cancer?

Secondary breast cancer means that a breast cancer has spread to another part of the body. This includes the liver, lungs, brain, or bones. It doesn't include breast cancers that are affecting the lymph glands under the arm.

Unfortunately, secondary breast cancer can't be cured. The aim of treatment is to control it, relieve symptoms and maintain your quality of life. Many people can live a normal life for a number of years.

Locally advanced breast cancer

Locally advanced cancer means that the cancer has spread into nearby tissue and lymph nodes around the breast. This includes lymph nodes around the collar bone and breast bone. It hasn’t spread to other organs.

This is different to secondary breast cancer. And it is different to early breast cancer which may be affecting just the breast, or the breast and your lymph nodes under your arm.

Sometimes when breast cancer is first diagnosed it may already be a secondary cancer. Or the cancer has come back and spread after treatment for the original cancer. 

Cancers that have spread to another part of the body are also called:

  • advanced cancers
  • metastases
  • metastatic cancer

Where breast cancer spreads

Breast cancer can spread anywhere but most commonly goes to the:

  • liver
  • lungs
  • lymph nodes
  • brain
  • bones

Your doctor will arrange some scans and tests if you have symptoms. They will also examine you and find out how you how are feeling.

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 is 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.

Survival

Many people want to know what the outlook is and how their cancer will develop. This is different for each person. Your cancer specialist has all the information about you and your cancer. They're the best person to discuss this with.

You can also talk to your specialist nurse.

For information and support, you can phone the Cancer Research UK nurses on 0808 800 4040, from Monday to Friday, 9am to 5pm.
Last reviewed: 
10 Feb 2021
Next review due: 
10 Feb 2024
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  • AJCC Cancer Staging Manual (8th edition)
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  • Advanced breast cancer: diagnosis and treatment

    National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) 2009,  Last updated: 2017

  • 4th ESO–ESMO International Consensus Guidelines for Advanced Breast Cancer

    F Cardoso and others

    Annals of Oncology, 2018. Volume 29, Pages 1634–1657,

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