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Stage 4

Find out what stage 4 breast cancer means and about treatment options.

Stage 4 breast cancer means that the cancer has spread to other parts of the body.

It is also called advanced cancer, secondary breast cancer, or metastatic breast cancer.

In stage 4 breast cancer:

  • the tumour can be any size
  • the lymph nodes may or may not contain cancer cells
  • the cancer has spread (metastasised) to other parts of the body such as the bones, lungs, liver or brain
M stages breast.jpg

TNM stages

The TNM staging system stands for Tumour, Node, Metastasis.

  • T describes the size of the tumour
  • N describes whether there are any cancer cells in the lymph nodes
  • M describes whether the cancer has spread to a different part of the body

In the TNM staging system stage 4 breast cancer is the same as:

  • Any T Any N M1

Treatment

Your specialist will take a number of different factors into account when deciding which treatment is best for you, including:

  • which part of your body the cancer has spread to
  • the treatment you have already had
  • your general health
  • whether you have had your menopause
  • whether the cancer is growing slowly or more quickly
  • whether the cancer cells have receptors for particular types of drug treatment

Secondary breast cancer may respond to several types of treatment. Doctors try to start with treatment that has as few side effects as possible.

Remember that treatment can often keep secondary breast cancer under control for many months or years.

Types of treatment

Hormone therapy is a common treatment for secondary breast cancer. It can often shrink and control the cancer wherever it is in the body. It works well if the cancer cells have particular proteins called hormone receptors.

If one hormone therapy stops working so well, another might then help.

Your specialist might suggest chemotherapy if your cancer doesn't have hormone receptors or has spread to the liver or lungs.

You might have treatment with a targeted cancer drug such as the monoclonal antibody trastuzumab (Herceptin). Herceptin targets and blocks a protein that stimulates breast cancer cells to grow and multiply. It only works if your breast cancer cells make too much of a protein called HER2.

You might have radiotherapy if the cancer has spread to:

  • the bones
  • the brain
  • the skin near the breast or on the mastectomy scar

Your doctor or nurse can prescribe medicines to control symptoms that the cancer causes. The symptoms will depend on where the cancer has spread to. They might include a cough, constipation, sickness, or high blood calcium levels, for example.

Making decisions about treatment

Deciding about treatment can be difficult. Treatments can help to reduce symptoms and might make you feel better. But they also have side effects that can make you feel unwell for a while. Find out about making decisions when you have advanced cancer.

More information about advanced cancer

Information can help you to understand your situation. 

Last reviewed: 
09 Oct 2017
  • TNM Classification of Malignant Tumours (7th edition)
    International Union Against Cancer   
    LH Sobin, MK Gospodarowicz, CH Wittekind
    John Wiley and Sons, 2009

  • AJCC Cancer Staging Manual (7th edition)
    American Joint Committee on Cancer
    Springer, 2010

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

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