Secondary breast cancer: 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 or blood system.

You may hear it referred to as:

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

Usually secondary breast cancer is diagnosed months or years after primary breast cancer but sometimes it’s diagnosed at the same time as the primary breast cancer or, on rare occasions, before the primary breast cancer has been diagnosed.

Find out about the signs and symptoms of secondary breast cancer.

The most common areas breast cancer spreads to are the bones, lungs, liver and brain. When breast cancer spreads, for example to the bones, it is called secondary breast cancer in the bone. The cancer cells in the bone are breast cancer cells. 

A diagnosis of secondary breast cancer means that the cancer can be treated but it can’t be cured. The aim of treatment is to control and slow down the spread of the disease, to relieve symptoms and to give you the best possible quality of life, for as long as possible.

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.

Find out more about how you might feel after a secondary breast cancer diagnosis and treatments for secondary breast cancer.

Last reviewed: December 2015
Next planned review begins 2017

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