A metastatic breast cancer diagnosis can be overwhelming. Sometimes referred to as “stage IV breast cancer,” metastatic breast cancer is cancer that has spread from the breast to another part of the body, and many patients diagnosed with this disease are overcome with emotions that can be difficult to process.
Though some women are diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer on their first trip to the doctor, BreastCancer.org notes that nearly 30 percent of women diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer will eventually develop metastatic disease. Such women may be left with a host of questions, and some may even question their previous treatments, especially when considering early diagnosis is often touted as the best way to beat breast cancer. In such instances, direct conversations with a physician can be a woman’s best ally, as can a general knowledge of metastatic cancer. 

How does metastatic breast cancer occur?
Women who have beaten breast cancer in the past naturally wonder how the cancer spread to other parts of the body to become metastatic breast cancer. It can be especially confounding because metastatic breast cancer, as noted by the Susan G. Komen® organization, most often arises months or years after an initial treatment for breast cancer. This occurs because cancer cells can break away from the tumor in the breast and travel to other parts of the body. Some may travel through the bloodstream, while others may move through the lymphatic system. The lymphatic system is a large, complex network of nodes and vessels that’s responsible for removing bacteria, viruses and cellular waste products.
The Metastatic Breast Cancer Network notes that it’s fairly easy for breast cancer cells to travel away from the breast. However, only a select few of these cells tend to survive and grow in other organs, as the body typically rejects or attacks things it does not recognize. But metastatic cancer cells seem familiar enough to the body that it allows them to grow.

Why did I get metastatic breast cancer?
The MBCN notes that doctors have conducted extensive research on the process of metastasis, but to date it’s impossible to predict how long cancer cells will be inactive before they begin to grow and become detectable.
Part of what makes a metastatic breast cancer diagnosis so difficult to handle is that many women who receive such diagnoses had beaten breast cancer in the past. In fact, the MBCN notes that doctors may speak of breast cancer as a disease that can be treated and then ends. But recurrence is always a possibility, as sometimes cancer treatments leave cancer cells behind. WebMD notes that even a single cancer cell can grow into a new tumor.
The Susan G. Komen® organization notes that roughly 34 percent of women who have had metastatic breast cancer in the United States today have been living with it for five years. It’s important for women who receive such a diagnosis to remember that figure as they fight this disease. More information about metastatic breast cancer can be found at www.mbcn.org.