Symptoms - Metastasis

When breast cancer spreads, or metastasizes, to different parts of the body, it can cause a variety of symptoms. The symptoms can vary depending on where the metastasis occurs. Breast cancer most often spreads to the lymph nodes, the bones, the liver, the lungs, or the brain.

Symptoms that breast cancer has spread to the lymph nodes

Breast cancer can spread through the lymphatic system and may cause nearby lymph nodes to become swollen. Swollen lymph nodes may feel like a lump or area of swelling in the armpit (axillary lymph nodes), or lumps or swelling above or below the collarbone (supraclavicular and infraclavicular lymph nodes).1

Symptoms of metastasis to the bones

Breast cancer that has metastasized to the bones may be called metastatic breast cancer with bone metastases, or “bone mets.” When breast cancer metastasizes to the bone, it can cause symptoms such as2,3:

  • Pain in the affected bone
  • Bone fractures or breaks
  • Swelling
  • Fatigue
  • Nausea
  • Loss of appetite
  • Dehydration

Breast cancer can potentially metastasize to any bone in the body, although it commonly spreads to the ribs, spine, pelvis, and/or the bones in the arms or legs. While pain in the bones from bone mets may be difficult to distinguish from arthritis pain, any new sudden pain should be evaluated by a healthcare professional. Prompt treatment of bone metastases can help prevent fractures.2

Symptoms of metastasis to the liver

When breast cancer spreads to the liver, it may not cause any symptoms at first. The first signs may be picked up by blood tests, which measure the levels of certain enzymes and proteins that fluctuate depending on how the liver is functioning. However, breast cancer metastasis to the liver, or “liver mets,” can cause symptoms such as3,4:

  • Jaundice, a yellowing of the whites of the eyes and the skin
  • Itchy skin
  • Pain or swelling in the abdomen or under the rib cage on the right side
  • Weight loss
  • Loss of appetite

Symptoms of metastasis to the lungs

Breast cancer that has spread to the lungs may not cause symptoms when it first spreads there. Lung metastases, or “lung mets,” may be first found on a scan, such as a chest x-ray or computed tomography (CT) scan. Symptoms of lung metastases from breast cancer can include3,5:

  • Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
  • A constant dry cough
  • Wheezing
  • Pain in the lungs

Symptoms of metastasis to the brain

Breast cancer that spreads to the brain, also called “brain mets,” can cause symptoms such as3,6:

  • Headache
  • Confusion or memory problems
  • Seizures
  • Dizziness or loss of balance
  • Vision changes
  • Changes to personality or mood
  • Slurred speech

Any symptoms that do not go away or that cause concern should be checked by a health care professional.

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