What is secondary breast cancer?

Secondary breast cancer means that a cancer that started in the breast has spread to another part of the body. It most commonly spreads to the liver, lungs, brain, or bones.

Diagram showing M stages breast

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

Locally advanced and secondary breast cancer

Locally advanced breast cancer is different from secondary breast cancer. 

Locally advanced breast cancer means the cancer has spread into the surrounding area, such as the lymph nodes Open a glossary item, the skin or the chest muscle. But it has not spread to other distant parts of the body such as the bones.

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. 

Secondary breast cancer is also called:

  • advanced breast cancer
  • metastatic breast cancer
  • stage 4 breast cancer

Tests to diagnose secondary breast cancer

You have tests to diagnose secondary breast cancer. These are similar to the tests to diagnose early breast cancer, so you might have had some of them before.

The tests you might have include:

  • mammogram
  • breast ultrasound scan
  • taking a sample of tissue from your cancer called a biopsy
  • scans such as CT scan, PET-CT scan and a bone scan


Treatment for secondary breast cancer depends on a number of factors such as the treatment you already had and where the cancer is in your body. 

Common treatments for secondary breast cancer include chemotherapy, hormone therapy and targeted cancer drugs. You usually have a combination of these. 

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.


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

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

  • ESMO Clinical Practice Guideline for the diagnosis, staging and treatment of patients with metastatic breast cancer
    A Gennari and others
    Annals of Oncology, 2021. Vol 32, Issue 12. Pages 1475-1495

  • Cancer: Principles and Practice of Oncology (12th edition)
    VT DeVita, TS Lawrence, SA Rosenberg
    Wolters Kluwer, 2023

  • Estimated Prevalence of Metastatic Breast Cancer in England, 2016-2021
    C Palmieri, J Owide and K Fryer 
    JAMA Network Open, 2022. Vol 5, Issue 12

  • 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 patientinformation@cancer.org.uk 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

Related links