• Doctors monitor the progress of your breast cancer treatment and underlying condition, both of which may change over time.
  • Your treatment plan will depend on the decisions you make about your options. Your doctor is there to help you understand these options and the risks and benefits of each.
  • They may discuss alternative treatments, clinical trials, palliative care, and hospice care with you.

There are several treatment options available for advanced breast cancer.

Treatment at this stage can slow the growth of cancer and improve your symptoms, as well as prolong your life.

Sometimes treatments that previously worked well no longer do, and cancer continues to progress. It’s helpful to know what to do in this situation.

A cancer treatment that has worked well in the past can stop working. Therefore, it’s important to tell your doctor about any changes in the way that you feel.

Your doctor will perform routine testing and exams to monitor the progress of your treatment. This can help your healthcare team determine whether the treatment you’re receiving is effective.

Blood tests can check:

If you’re receiving chemotherapy, your doctor will check your blood cell counts before each round of treatment.

If blood test results raise concerns, your doctor can order other tests to see if cancer has spread.

  • A computed tomography (CT) scan can identify whether cancer has spread to your lungs, brain, or liver.
  • X-rays can find new cancer in the bones, abdomen, or chest.
  • A bone scan can check all bones for new cancer.
  • Positron emission tomography (PET) scans can detect cancer in lymph nodes.
  • A bronchoscopy uses a scope with a camera to examine the inside of your lungs.
  • During a biopsy, your doctor removes a small tissue sample for viewing with a microscope.

If your test results show that your plan isn’t working, it may be time to ask your doctor about other treatment options.

If your current treatment is no longer effective, your doctor can help you decide what to do next. This might mean trying another treatment or taking part in a clinical trial.

It helps to have a list of questions for your doctor, covering topics such as:

  • what your treatment options are
  • the outlook for your condition
  • the side effects of other treatments
  • clinical trials you could take part in
  • the value of palliative or hospice care
  • how to know when to stop treatment

Some people choose to avoid cancer treatment side effects and transition to hospice care instead.

Even if you wonder what more can be done, it’s always a good idea to discuss things with your doctor. Cancer treatment is continuously evolving and improving.

For example, a study that included 239,992 people living with breast cancer found that relative survival has improved for:

  • those under age 65, for all stages of cancer
  • people ages 65 to 75 with advanced breast cancer

Researchers believe these improvements are because of an increase in systemic treatments, which is those that travel throughout the body to treat cancer wherever it’s located. Examples include:

  • chemotherapy
  • hormonal therapy
  • immunotherapy
  • targeted drugs

Even so, the emotional impact of discussing new treatments can be stressful. It helps to have supportive people in your life to help you through the times when you may feel overwhelmed.

The American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) suggests looking for a clinical trial to join if the treatments for your cancer have stopped working but you want to continue trying.

A clinical trial is research involving volunteers who meet certain eligibility requirements. Clinical trials have benefits and risks. Your doctor can review these with you and how they apply to your specific situation.

Potential benefits include:

  • You have access to new treatment.
  • You play a more active role in your own care.
  • The trial may provide you with more medical care.
  • You may require more frequent checkups, which results in more information about your condition.
  • You’re contributing to the evolution of medical knowledge and helping others in the process.
  • Participation may result in increased information about resources and support groups.
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Possible risks include:

  • The new treatment may cause unwanted side effects.
  • The new treatment may not work.
  • You might be in the control group and receive a placebo instead of treatment.
  • The scheduling, location, or other participation requirements might be inconvenient.
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You can ask your doctor for more information or visit Clinicaltrials.gov.

The word “palliative” means to address the pain and discomfort of an illness, rather than the cause.

Palliative care for cancer is aimed at managing cancer symptoms and treatment side effects. You can have palliative care at any time during your cancer journey, whether it be right after diagnosis, or all the way through treatment. People who have stopped treatment can transition to end-of-life support called hospice care.

Anyone experiencing symptoms from any illness should have palliative care. You should have access to it from the time of diagnosis until you no longer need it.

Palliative care helps in areas such as:

  • managing cancer symptoms and treatment side effects
  • emotional and spiritual support
  • assistance with insurance, financial, and employment issues
  • support for family and caregivers
  • help with paperwork, like advance directives
  • transitioning to hospice care in the event that cancer worsens or treatment no longer works

People who receive palliative care spend less time in the hospital and have a better quality of life with fewer symptoms. According to the American Cancer Society, starting palliative care soon after diagnosis may result in extended survival.

It can also help to connect with other people who share your experience, such as by joining a support group.

Sometimes breast cancer treatment stops working, even when it was previously effective. The tests your doctor uses to monitor your cancer during treatment can indicate whether it’s still working. It also helps if you communicate how you’re feeling and let your doctor know if you experience new or changed symptoms.

Clinical trials are ongoing to discover new and improved ways of treating cancer. You may be able to find one to join. Clinical trials give you access to new treatments that aren’t yet widely available while enabling you to add to the growing body of scientific knowledge.

If you haven’t yet received palliative care, ask your doctor about this companion to treatment.