Welcome to our page for those with secondary breast cancer. If you are reading this you may have been diagnosed with secondary breast cancer yourself or know someone with a recent diagnosis. We hope that the information and stories you read here will help and encourage you.
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Secondary breast cancer what is it?
In some women, cancer cells break away from the primary breast cancer and spread to other parts of the body via the bloodstream or lymphatic system. (The lymphatic system is part of the immune system the body’s natural defence against infection and disease. It is a complex system made up of organs, such as bone marrow, the thymus, the spleen, and lymph nodes. The lymph nodes throughout the body are connected by a network of tiny lymphatic ducts.)
Even the best treatment for early breast cancer doesn’t always remove every cancer cell. Such cells may be inactive for years before they begin to grow. Most commonly, secondary breast cancer develops from cells that were left behind after treatment. Other times, cancer cells start to travel around the body before the tumour in the breast is found and treated. If it is large enough to see on a scan or x-ray, secondary breast cancer may be diagnosed at the same time as the primary breast cancer. Sometimes, less commonly, a secondary tumour is the first symptom to be found and diagnosed.
When cancer cells that have spread to other organs begin to grow and cause symptoms this is known as secondary breast cancer, but may also be called metastatic breast cancer, mets, secondaries or advanced breast cancer. The original cancer in the breast is known as primary’ or early’ breast cancer. The new tumours are often called metastases. They may occur in the liver, bones, lungs and sometimes the brain as well as other less frequent sites.
Treatment for secondary breast cancer
There are treatment options to control secondary breast cancer but they are not a cure. Many women live with secondary breast cancer for years and often look after their family, go on holiday, even work or do sports – much like other people, although with close regard to their level of wellness.
If you have secondary breast cancer, your cancer specialist will discuss what treatment is best for you. This will depend on where the cancer has spread to, and what treatment you’ve had before. Increasingly drugs used in the treatment of breast cancer are becoming more targeted to the individual as the varied nature of the disease is better understood. Other factors that your specialist will consider include:
What type of cancer cells you have and how sensitive they are likely to be to treatment.
Your age and how well you are.
How much treatment you want to have.
Some women want to try every treatment they can and to take part in clinical trials of new treatments. We recommend you gain as much information about the likely benefits and side effects of the treatment being studied, and the treatment it is being compared with, from your oncologist before you start. It is a time when information is crucial to making the best decisions.
Much of the progress of the last 40 years has come from clinical trials. Medical staff recognise that trial participation is attractive to many patients and they should be prepared to discuss this as a legitimate option whenever appropriate, even if it means transferring their patient to another clinic. Every cancer treatment has side effects, and some women are prepared to put up with these if there’s a chance that the treatment will help them to live well for longer. Other women decide at some point that they’ve had enough treatment and prefer to have palliative care to relieve their symptoms and help them with any practical or emotional problems they may be having.
There’s no right or wrong way to deal with secondary breast cancer. Treatment is something you’ll probably want to talk about with your family and friends, as well as your cancer specialist. It’s a very personal journey and the decisions are yours.
Read more about clinical trials – from BCNA and the Australian New Zealand Breast Cancer Clinical Trials Group
Several women living with secondary breast cancer have offered their stories and insights, and shared aspects of their experiences so that others can read them here.
These women demonstrate great hope and courage in setting new goals for themselves and in living their lives well, and have shown that resilience and creativity can emerge from challenging situations. The stories speak for themselves we think these women are some of New Zealands true heroes. Click on the links below to read their stories.
Feelings and secondary breast cancer
Discovering you have secondary breast cancer brings up many different feelings. You may feel completely shocked and numb. After the first shock, it is normal to feel that this is very unfair. You may also feel angry and let down. It may help to know that no one knows yet what triggers some breast cancers to spread. But nothing you have done is to blame.