What Common Way Does Breast Cancer Spread?


In approximately one-third of breast cancer cases, the cancer cells will spread from the breast to other tissues in the body. This is known as stage 4 breast cancer or metastatic breast cancer.

Although this is the most advanced stage of breast cancer, many women with metastatic breast cancer can still live long and healthy lives.

How Does Breast Cancer Spread?

As a tumor grows, the cancer cells can potentially break away from the original tumor site and travel to other parts of the body through the bloodstream or lymphatic system.

Your lymphatic system is a network of vessels and nodes that help filter your body’s waste and toxins. Some of these lymph nodes are inside your armpit area—a common site for breast cancer to spread.

Once the cancer cells reach these lymph nodes, they can continue growing and forming new tumors in other body parts.

Breast Cancer In Your Bones

More than half of women (70%) with metastatic breast cancer will have cancer cells in their bones. When this happens, it is still referred to as breast cancer since original cancer started in the breast tissue.

The most common bones to experience this spread are the ribs, spine, pelvis, and upper bones in the arms and legs, but it could potentially spread to any bone in the body.

Bone metastases can cause several symptoms, including severe pain, fractures, immobility, and numbness.

Breast Cancer In Your Lungs

The lungs are another common site for breast cancer to spread. In many cases, this might not produce any noticeable symptoms, but a PET scan or CT scan can reveal small tumors in the lungs.

As the cancer cells continue to grow, they can eventually begin to interfere with your lung function and cause fluid buildup, shortness of breath, and a persistent cough.

Breast Cancer In Your Liver

If breast cancer spreads to the liver, it can cause several symptoms, including gut pain or discomfort, weakness, poor appetite, weight loss, and bloating.

It can also cause yellowing of the skin and eyes—a condition known as jaundice that results when the liver cannot properly filter out waste products from the blood.

Breast Cancer In Your Brain

It’s relatively less common for breast cancer to spread to the brain, but it does happen in about 10% of cases.

The most common symptom of brain metastases is a headache that doesn’t go away, but you might also experience nausea, vomiting, seizures, or changes in your mood or behavior.

Unfortunately, brain metastasis is also a bit more difficult to treat.

With each type of metastatic cancer, your healthcare team will develop a systemic treatment plan tailored to your individual needs.

You might receive a combination of surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, and targeted therapies to help keep the cancer cells under control and improve your symptoms.

If you or a loved one have been diagnosed with breast cancer, try to remember that metastatic cancer is often still treatable and that many resources are available to help you through this difficult time.