Just diagnosed with secondary breast cancer

Finding out your breast cancer has spread can cause many different emotions, from disbelief, denial and shock to anger, fear and helplessness. These feelings are normal, but support is available to help you cope.

1. What is secondary breast cancer? 
2. Can secondary breast cancer be cured? 
3. How long do people live with secondary breast cancer?
4. Coping with the shock of diagnosis 
5. Treatment for secondary breast cancer 
6. Living with secondary breast cancer

1. What is secondary breast cancer?

Secondary breast cancer occurs when breast cancer cells spread from the primary (first) cancer in the breast to other parts of the body. This may happen through the lymphatic system or the blood.

You may hear secondary breast cancer referred to as:

  • metastatic breast cancer
  • metastases
  • advanced breast cancer
  • secondary tumours
  • secondaries
  • stage 4 breast cancer

The most common areas breast cancer spreads to are the:

Sometimes other parts of the body, such as the skin or abdomen (belly), are affected.

Where it spreads and to how many sites varies with different types of breast cancer and in different people.

When breast cancer spreads to the bones, for example, it’s called secondary or metastatic breast cancer in the bone. The cancer cells in the bone are breast cancer cells.

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2. Can secondary breast cancer be cured?

Secondary breast cancer can be treated, but it can’t be cured.

Treatment aims to control the cancer, relieve any symptoms, and maintain health, wellbeing and a good quality of life for as long as possible.

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3. How long do people live with secondary breast cancer?

One of the first things many people with secondary breast cancer want to know is how long they’ve got to live.

Life expectancy is difficult to predict as each person’s case is different and no two cancers progress in the same way. However, as treatments have improved, more and more people are living longer after a diagnosis of secondary breast cancer.

Your specialist will have an understanding of the likely progression of your secondary breast cancer and can talk to you about what you might expect. You may worry if their answers are vague but it isn’t possible to accurately predict how each person’s cancer will respond to treatment.

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4. Coping with the shock of diagnosis

Marie and Diane talk about coping with a diagnosis of secondary breast cancer. 

A diagnosis of secondary breast cancer often comes as a very big shock.  

In the days or weeks after your diagnosis, you may feel in turmoil and find it hard to think clearly.

You may experience many different emotions, including disbelief, denial, shock, anger, fear, numbness and helplessness. Your emotions may swing from one extreme to the other or change from one day to the next.

Many people go through this stage before reaching a point where they’re able to start taking some control of their situation. However difficult it may seem, you can have some control over how you manage the illness and deal with the emotional and practical issues it brings.

Talking to other people

Talking about how you’re feeling can often help you cope in the early days. You may be able to do this with family and friends, but many people find this very difficult.

Talking with a specialist nurse can often help. You can ask to be put in contact with one if you haven’t already.

Breast Cancer Care is also here to help. Through our services you can:

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5. Treatment for secondary breast cancer

The aim of treatment for secondary breast cancer is to:

  • control and slow down the spread of the cancer
  • relieve symptoms
  • maintain health and wellbeing
  • give you the best quality of life for as long as possible

There are many treatments that can keep secondary breast cancer under control, often for years.

Find out more about treating secondary breast cancer.

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6. Living with secondary breast cancer

Everyone’s experience of being diagnosed with secondary breast cancer is different, and people cope in their own way.

For many people, uncertainty can be the hardest part of living with secondary breast cancer.

Our information on living with secondary breast cancer addresses the emotional, practical and physical effects of a diagnosis.

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Last reviewed: May 2018
Next planned review begins 2020

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