According to the National Cancer Institute, an estimated 27 percent of people in the United States live at least five years after being diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer.
Many factors can affect your chances of long-term survival. Different subtypes of breast cancer behave differently — some are more aggressive than others, and some have far fewer treatment options than others. For this reason, your subtype may affect your outlook.
Higher survival rates are also associated with the extent and location of metastasis. In other words, your long-term outlook may be better if your cancer has only spread to your bones than if it’s found in your bones and lungs.
Immediately seeking treatment, like chemotherapy, surgery, or hormone therapy, can help improve your outlook. Making healthy lifestyle choices might also improve your chances of survival.
Cancer cells might have traveled through your lymphatic system to your lungs, bones, liver, brain, or other organs.
Stage 4 is the most serious and life-threatening stage of breast cancer. Most often, stage 4 breast cancer develops long after a person has first been diagnosed with cancer. In rare cases, the cancer may have progressed to stage 4 at the time a person is first diagnosed.
Facing stage 4 breast cancer is difficult. But following your doctor’s recommended treatment plan and practicing healthy lifestyle habits can help improve your outcome. It may significantly increase your lifespan and improve your quality of life.
If you have stage 4 breast cancer, it’s important to work with an oncologist to develop a treatment plan. An oncologist is a doctor who specializes in treating cancer.
Your treatment plan for stage 4 breast cancer will aim to stop any tumors you have from growing and spreading. Since tumors have already spread to other areas of your body at this stage of the disease, your treatment will likely be a systemic treatment, meaning it can treat all of the areas involved.
Depending on your specific breast cancer characteristics and medical history, your oncologist may recommend a variety of treatment options. For example, they may encourage you to undergo:
- hormone therapy, which is used to treat hormone-sensitive cancers
- targeted therapy, which attacks specific sites on cancer cells
- radiation therapy, which is often used for brain and bone tumors
- surgery, which is rarely used in stage 4 breast cancer
Your oncologist will take many factors into consideration before recommending a treatment plan. For example, your age and overall health can help them determine if therapies that have strong physical side effects, such as chemotherapy, are right for you.
If a particular treatment option hasn’t worked for you in the past, doctors probably won’t use it to treat your stage 4 cancer.
Having stage 4 breast cancer may lead to periods of weight gain and weight loss. Making changes to your diet can help to offset this.
Women with breast cancer might gain weight for several reasons. These include:
- financial stress
- fluid retention from chemotherapy
- less energy for physical activity
- strain from relationships at home and work
- taking steroids, which can cause also cause fluid retention
One study published in the journal Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention concluded that breast cancer survivors gain weight at a faster rate than women who’ve never had cancer.
The study found that women with estrogen receptor-negative tumors who were treated with chemotherapy and took statins at the same time had significantly higher weight gain rates than women with breast cancer who didn’t take statins during treatment.
Some women may also find taking hormone therapies, like tamoxifen, can cause them to gain weight.
Not all women with stage 4 breast cancer experience weight gain. Some may experience significant weight loss due to lack of appetite. Side effects from cancer treatments and medications can include nausea, diarrhea, and reduced appetite.
Even if you’ve experienced weight gain with stage 4 breast cancer, doctors don’t usually recommend a strict diet. Instead, your focus can be on making healthy food choices with enough nutrients to support immune cell growth. Here are a few good habits you might try to adopt:
- Eat several small meals throughout the day. This can reduce the effects of nausea and help you keep your energy up.
- Incorporate lean protein sources. Protein is vital for tissue and cell repair. Examples of high-protein foods include chicken, eggs, low-fat dairy, nuts, beans, and soy foods.
- Choose a variety of fruits and vegetables each day. Eating a nutritious profile of colorful fruits and vegetables can provide immune-boosting antioxidants.
- Stay hydrated by drinking at least 64 ounces of water a day. Drinking enough water can prevent dehydration.
- Keep high-calorie foods on hand for days when you may not feel like eating as much. Examples include milkshakes and prepared supplement drinks, smoothies, crackers and nut butter, and trail mixes.
Talk to your doctor about a plan for your individual nutritional needs. They might recommend increasing certain foods or drinks and limiting others.
Nutrition and nausea
On days when you’re experiencing strong bouts of nausea, there are some nutritional steps you can take to keep your energy levels up. These include:
- Eating foods or drinking beverages that contain ginger, like ginger ale or ginger tea.
- Eating meals that are reheated instead of cooked. These meals tend to produce fewer odors that can trigger nausea and food avoidance.
- Drinking lemonade or lemon water, which can help reduce nausea.
- Choosing bland foods that are easy to digest, such as apples, toast, saltine crackers, broth, and bananas.
- Refraining from eating foods that are produce flavor extremes, like meals that are very spicy, sweet, or greasy.
Even when you don’t feel like eating, trying to stay hydrated can help until you feel more like eating.
Exercise is important for your overall mental and physical health. Since fatigue is often a symptom associated with stage 4 breast cancer, it can help to plan your exercise during your most energetic time of day.
Consistency is key. It’s better to exercise in small amounts every day than to follow an extreme pattern of occasional intense activity between long periods of inactivity.
While there are potential benefits to exercise when you have stage 4 cancer, it’s important to talk to your doctor before starting an exercise program.
If your blood counts are low or your electrolyte levels (potassium, sodium, and more) are imbalanced, most doctors won’t recommend exercising because you could put yourself at risk of further harm. Also, a doctor may recommend avoiding public places, like gyms, because of risks of germ exposure.
Safety is always a concern when you have stage 4 breast cancer. Bleeding and risks of injury are important considerations.
Some women experience balance and foot numbness problems due to their treatments and fatigue. If this is the case, it’s best to do exercises that put you at less risk of falls. An example could be riding a stationary bicycle instead of running on a treadmill.
There might not be a direct link between exercise and stage 4 breast cancer survival rates, but you can reap other benefits from regular exercise. For example, it may help you:
- lose excess body fat
- increase your body strength
- increase your energy
- reduce your stress
- improve your mood
- improve your quality of life
- reduce side effects from treatment
Your doctor can help you develop an exercise routine that fits your physical needs and abilities. Ultimately, it’s important that you listen to your body and don’t push yourself on the days when you aren’t feeling up to working out.
It’s also critical to find a strong source of social support, whether it’s your friends and family or a support group with other people with breast cancer. While the journey is tough, you don’t have to navigate stage 4 breast cancer alone.
There may be an in-person support group where you receive treatments, but you can also find online and social media groups to join. Find support from others who are living with breast cancer. Download Healthline’s free app here.
Your doctor can also provide more information about your cancer specifics, treatment options, and support programs in your area. If you’re not sure where to look for an in-person group, a counselor or social worker can also help.
Researchers are continuing to examine different treatment options for stage 4 breast cancer. You might consider participating in clinical trials to help researchers better understand breast cancer and come up with potential cures.
Your doctor can help you assess the potential benefits and risks of experimental treatments.