The spread of breast cancer to other parts of the body is called metastasis. It’s not uncommon. About 20 to 30 percent of all breast cancers will become metastatic.
Metastatic breast cancer is also known as stage 4 breast cancer. This means that cancer cells have spread in the body beyond the original site of diagnosis. Cancer can spread through the lymphatic system or through the blood. This allows the cancer to travel to other organs. The most common organs that breast cancer cells travel to are the:
Breast cancer, like all cancers, is categorized by stages. The location, size and type of tumor determine the cancer’s stage. Stage 4 is the most serious and the most complicated to treat because the cancer has spread beyond its original location. Stage 1 breast cancer is highly treatable because cancer cells are still isolated in the breast. Stages 2 and 3 are progressively more serious.
The pancreas is located near the stomach. It has two main jobs. First, it releases fluid into the small intestine to help with digestion. Second, the pancreas is responsible for the production of important hormones. This includes insulin, which helps manage blood sugar levels in the body.
If cancer develops in the pancreas, it may be a while before you notice any symptoms. Often the first symptom is jaundice, a yellowing of the skin. Liver problems can also lead to jaundice.
Other symptoms of cancer in the pancreas include:
- light-colored stools
- dark-colored urine
- a loss of appetite
- significant weight loss
- back pain
- abdominal pain
One other serious sign of cancer in the pancreas is the formation of a blood clot in a leg vein. This is called a deep vein thrombosis, and it can pose a serious health risk. A clot that forms in the leg can move to the lungs where it can become a pulmonary embolism. This can affect your heart function and your ability to breathe.
Breast cancer metastasis to the pancreas is relatively rare. In a 2010 study, researchers reported that they could only find 11 such cases in medical literature. Despite its infrequent occurrence, it’s worth understanding more about how breast cancer can spread and what could happen if cancer develops in the pancreas.
How the Cancer Spreads
It’s unclear exactly why cancer cells multiply and spread to other parts of the body. All cells have DNA, which is the material that carries all the genetic information about a living thing. When the DNA in a normal cell is damaged, the cell can sometimes repair itself. If the cell doesn’t repair itself, it dies.
Cancer cells are abnormal in that they don’t die or repair themselves when their DNA is damaged. The damaged cells just keep on multiplying, replacing healthy tissue. With breast cancer, a malignant tumor, or collection of cancer cells, forms in the breast. If the cancer is diagnosed and treated early, the cancer cells may never spread. If it’s not diagnosed and treated early, there’s a chance the cancer can show up somewhere else in your body.
Cancer cells can travel through the bloodstream and the lymph system to anywhere in the body. So cancer cells that from a tumor in the breast can invade the bloodstream and congregate in any organ. If cancer cells appear in the pancreas or elsewhere but they migrated from the breast, the cancer is referred to as a breast cancer metastasis.
Spreading to the Pancreas
Breast cancer metastasizing to the pancreas is rare. Less than 5 percent of all malignant tumors that form in the pancreas originated from malignant tumors elsewhere in the body. The percentage is much smaller when tracing malignancies in the pancreas that originated in the breast.
If breast cancer does metastasize, it usually does so in the:
Although breast cancer can metastasize anywhere, these four organs are the most common sites.
If your breast cancer has been treated successfully, you’ll still need regular follow-ups to make sure the cancer doesn’t reappear anywhere in the body. Sometimes, breast cancer will be successfully treated and it will appear in the other breast or in another organ years later. Certain cancer cells can exist for years without forming a tumor.
Your doctor will likely recommend regular checkups, including mammogram, ultrasounds, or MRIs. Other tests may also be necessary to check for signs of cancer. Because the liver and lungs are often the places where breast cancer metastasizes, an MRI of the liver or chest X-rays of the lungs may be ordered periodically to look for any changes.
A complete blood count may also be part of your annual blood work. Markers in the blood, such as cancer antigen (CA) 19-9, can indicate the presence of cancer in the pancreas. Unfortunately, that particular marker doesn’t show up until the cancer has advanced.
If you have symptoms, such as weight loss, abdominal pain, back pain, or digestive problems, it’s likely your doctor will order imaging tests such as MRIs and CT scans of your abdomen. Because early diagnosis can lead to prompt treatment, it’s important that you follow your doctor’s advice at follow-up appointments and that you don’t ignore any symptoms you may be experiencing.
Treating cancer of the pancreas typically involves a combination of procedures. If the cancer can be removed surgically, treatment may also include chemotherapy after the operation.
Targeted therapy options are a newer type of treatment. Targeted therapies use medications that attack certain characteristics of cancer cells. These medications are often delivered intravenously.
The goal of targeted therapy is to limit the cells’ ability to multiply. Many targeted therapies are still in the clinical trial phase. This means that they’re being studied but aren’t yet available to the general public. These therapies are seen as hopeful options as they have the potential to target and treat an individual’s specific tumor cells.
It’s important to weigh the risks and benefits of aggressive treatment any time breast cancer spreads to other parts of the body, such as the pancreas. Pancreatic metastasis is a serious diagnosis. One thing to consider is your quality of life and palliative care options. You should discuss this with your doctors, since you’ll be working with a team of professionals. You should also discuss:
- pain management
- the effects of chemotherapy
- radiation therapy
- any other treatments you may receive
This is a time to gather information from credible sources and make a decision that’s best for you and your family. Ask questions. Challenge your healthcare providers. Treatments continue to be improved and refined, so research your options before committing to a treatment plan.
Advancing age and being a woman are the top two risk factors for breast cancer. Reducing your odds of developing breast cancer involves many of the same steps as preventing other cancers, too. This includes:
- not smoking
- maintaining a healthy weight
- limiting alcohol consumption
Breast cancer metastasis in the pancreas is rare, but it’s not impossible. If you have or have had breast cancer, it’s important that you follow your treatment plan. Be sure to pay attention to symptoms you may be experiencing and let your doctor know if anything seems unusual. Awareness is your best bet in the pursuit of a long, healthy life.