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 and help are available to help you manage them.

1. Understanding your diagnosis 
2. What's my outlook? 
3. Coping with the shock of diagnosis 
4. Treatment for secondary breast cancer 
5. Living with secondary breast cancer

1. Understanding your diagnosis

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

Although secondary breast cancer can be treated, it can’t be cured. The aim of treatment is to control the cancer, relieve any symptoms and maintain a good quality of life for as long as possible.

You may hear secondary breast cancer referred to as:

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

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2. What’s my outlook?

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

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

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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3. Coping with the shock of diagnosis

In the initial days or weeks following your diagnosis of secondary breast cancer, you may feel in turmoil and find it hard to think clearly. Your emotions may swing from one extreme to the other or change from one day to the next.

This is a stage that many people go through before reaching a point where they are able to start to take some control of their situation.

However difficult this may seem, you can still have some control over how you manage the illness and deal with the emotional and practical issues that it brings.

Talking to other people

Talk about how you’re feeling. 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 and you can ask to be put in contact with one if you haven’t already.

You may find it helpful to talk to someone else who’s had a diagnosis of secondary breast cancer.

You can also call Breast Cancer Care’s Helpline free on 0808 800 6000.

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4. Treatment for secondary breast cancer

There are many treatments that can keep the cancer under control, often for many years. Your specialist will be able to tell you about the likely progress of your cancer, and what you might expect.

You can read more detailed information about treatment for and managing the effects of secondary breast cancer in the:

  • bones
  • lungs
  • liver
  • brain.​

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5. 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.

Living with Secondary Breast Cancer meet-ups allow you to talk openly to others who have had a secondary diagnosis, and to get information and support in a relaxed environment.

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

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Last reviewed: December 2015
Next planned review begins 2017

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Please note that we cannot respond to comments. If you have any questions about breast cancer please contact the Helpline on 0808 800 6000.