Secondary breast cancer
Secondary or metastatic breast cancer is when the breast cancer cells spread from the breast to other parts of the body. This leads to the development of cancer in other areas, such as the liver, bone, lungs or brain.
There is no known cure for secondary breast cancer so facing this diagnosis is likely to be scary. You may be plagued by thoughts such as “how long do I have?”, “why me?”, and “it’s not fair”. You will not know exactly what the future holds, but it’s important to remember that, for many women secondary breast cancer can be controlled successfully for a number of years.
BCAC member group, Sweet Louise, offers support for women with secondary breast cancer and you may like to get in touch with them for help and advice.
On this page, we look at:
- treatment options for secondary breast cancer
- dealing with the emotional impact of this diagnosis
- the effect of secondary breast cancer on your loved ones
- support for those with secondary breast cancer
There are many different treatment programmes for women with secondary breast cancer. The kind of treatment you undergo will depend on the nature of the disease, but is likely to include at least one of the following:
- Hormonal therapy
- Targeted drug therapy
Treatment programmes for women with secondary breast cancer are primarily drug related, but in some cases your treatment may also involve surgery and/or radiotherapy.
Although secondary or metastatic breast cancer cannot be cured, it may be kept under control for months or years with certain drug regimes. Your oncologist may have to trial various drug combinations to find a programme that is most effective in controlling your cancer.
Decisions about treatment are very personal. You need to make sure you understand the pros and cons of all your treatment options. Make sure you discuss these carefully with your oncologist and take a support person along to your consultations to ask further questions and to take notes for you. Think carefully about your treatment options and don't make a rushed decision. Make sure you have all the information you need so that you're making the most informed decision possible.
Secondary breast cancer can result in many uncomfortable symptoms from either the disease or treatment. These can include:
- nausea - from chemotherapy treatment
- pain - as a result of the disease
- fatigue - as a result of the disease and treatment
- lack of appetite - due to all the changes in your body
Remember many of these symptoms can be managed with further treatment, although they may not be entirely resolved.
If you are seriously questioning whether to continue with treatment, make sure you take time to think this over. Discuss this decision with your loved ones, your medical team and if possible with a counsellor or psychologist. A professional may be able to help you with this decision.
At some point, you may need palliative care. Hospice New Zealand has valuable information for those looking at this option.
Many women say the diagnosis of secondary breast cancer is often harder to deal with than the initial diagnosis. Many women experience fear, anguish, sadness, anxiety, or a sense of detachment. These are all normal emotions and it is best to just "go with them" rather than to push them away or to deny them.
Many people advocate being positive and this is a good thing to do, but it is not always possible. If you are feeling sad or down or angry then feel these emotions, don't berate yourself for not being positive. It's hard to be positive when you have such a tough diagnosis to deal with. But if you can try to find the positive in life, the joy, the happiness ... then do so, it probably will make you feel better.
The prolonged treatment and stress of secondary breast cancer means you will need a lot of emotional and practical support.
You may benefit from talking to a counsellor to discuss your fears and worries. This approach may also be helpful for your partner/children or family and friends, who will also feel the stress of this diagnosis. You might also like to read our section on emotional wellbeing for tips on how to cope with the stress of treatment.
Above all, it's important to hold onto hope when you are diagnosed with secondary breast cancer. There may no longer be hope for a long life, but hope for a good life; hope for time to enjoy the world, your family, your friends; hope for new experiences etc. Many people find a diagnosis of secondary breast cancer makes them look at life differently and want to make the most of life. Seize on this feeling and run with it.
Secondary breast cancer can often be very difficult for family members and friends. Some may find the diagnosis harder to accept than you do. They may be unable to cope with the emotions it brings; they may withdraw; or they may not know what to say to you.
It can be helpful if you let friends or family know what you need and want. If they are unsure how to talk to you or what help to offer - let them know. Often it can be easier to talk to friends because they do not have the extra involvement of a partner or relative. Find what support you can and encourage your partner and family members to develop their own support networks too.
If you have children - be honest with them about what is going on. Don't pretend there's nothing wrong. It is better to be open with them and give them the information they need to understand what is going on.
There are a number of organisations which provide specific support and assistance for women with secondary breast cancer. These include:
- The Cancer Society of New Zealand
0800 CANCER (22 62 37)
The Cancer Society provides support and information for people affected by cancer. Cancer nurses are available to provide support and advice on the cancer information help line.
- Sweet Louise
0800 11 22 77
Sweet Louise provides information about strategies to help those with secondary breast cancer lead more positive lives and assists them to access particular services. These range from gardening and housework, massage and pedicure to meditation and creative therapies. Sweet Louise is available in Auckland, Northland, Wellington and Palmerston North
Other resources you might like to look at, include: