Understanding metastasis

If you’ve been told that you have metastatic breast cancer, this means that the cancer has advanced to what’s known as stage 4. Stage 4 breast cancer refers to cancer that has spread beyond the breast tissue into other areas of the body.

To understand the prognosis for stage 4 breast cancer, it helps to know something about the process of metastasis. When cancer “metastasizes,” it has spread beyond the part of the body where it originated. In the case of breast cancer, receiving a stage 4 diagnosis may mean the cancer has reached organs outside of the breasts, such as your bones, lungs, liver, or even your brain.

Warning signs of breast cancer »

Metastatic breast cancer isn’t the same for everyone who has it. According to the National Breast Cancer Foundation (NBCF), your symptoms at stage 4 will depend on the degree to which the cancer has spread in your body.

Although metastatic breast cancer has no cure, it can be treated. Receiving proper treatment can increase both your quality of life and your longevity.

Surviving stage 4 breast cancer: Is it possible? »

The American Cancer Society (ACS) states that the five-year survival rate after diagnosis for people with stage 4 breast cancer is 22 percent.

This percentage is considerably lower than at earlier stages. At stage 3, the five-year relative survival rate is 72 percent. At stage 2, it’s over 90 percent.

Because survival rates are higher in the early stages of breast cancer, early diagnosis and treatment is crucial.

Understanding survival rates

Survival rates for breast cancer are based on studies of many patients with the condition. However, these statistics can’t predict your personal outcome, as each person’s prognosis is different.

Your life expectancy with metastatic breast cancer may be affected by:

  • your age
  • your general health
  • hormone receptors on cells with cancer
  • the types of tissue that the cancer has affected
  • your attitude and outlook

Breast cancer by the numbers: Survival rates by stage, age, and country »

There are a few general facts that are helpful to know about breast cancer prognosis. According to the University of Maryland Medical Center (UMMC):

  • After lung cancer, breast cancer causes more deaths in women than any other type of cancer.
  • Women in higher economic groups have higher survival rates than women in lower groups.
  • Many women with breast cancer now live longer than they used to. Over the last 10 years, the number of deaths from breast cancer has dropped substantially.

In recent years, women under age 50 have seen a particularly strong decline in death rates due to breast cancer, the UMMC reports. These declines are due in part to improved screening and treatment for the disease.

Despite these gains, breast cancer survivors need to keep in mind the possibility of their cancer returning. According to the UMMC, if your breast cancer is going to recur, it’s most likely to do so within five years of when you received treatment for the condition.

The stage of your breast cancer when you’re diagnosed plays an important role in your prognosis. According to the National Cancer Institute (NCI), you have the best chance of survival in the five years post-diagnosis when breast cancer is diagnosed and treated at an earlier stage.

Remember that everyone is different, and your response to treatment may not match someone else’s — even at stage 4. Talk to your doctor to learn more about the individual factors that may affect your prognosis.

Advanced breast cancer