Defining stage 4 breast cancer

An advanced breast cancer diagnosis is alarming news, not just for the person receiving it, but for family, friends, and loved ones as well. Find out what you need to know if you’re caring for someone with stage 4 breast cancer.

When a person has stage 4 breast cancer, it means that their cancer has metastasized, or spread, from the breast into at least one other area of the body. Sometimes breast cancer metastases are found in the:

  • brain
  • liver
  • lymph nodes
  • lungs
  • bones

The physical effects

Stage 4 breast cancer and its treatment affect the whole body. Depending on the locations of the cancer and the treatments chosen, physical effects include:

  • pain, both localized and “all over”
  • weakness
  • fatigue
  • changes in appearance, such as hair loss, dark circles under the eyes, brittle nails

The emotional effects

In addition to the many emotions that accompany an advanced breast cancer diagnosis, the pain and fatigue of cancer can make everyday activities feel like too much.

Things your loved one once enjoyed may become too difficult or too tiring. Changes in their appearance may be devastating to them. All of the physical effects of the cancer lead to emotional effects, which can include:

  • depression
  • anxiety
  • social isolation
  • fear
  • embarrassment

When a loved one receives an advanced breast cancer diagnosis, the news can be devastating. If you’re also taking care of that loved one, the feelings of grief and stress can have an overwhelming effect on you.

Taking care of your loved one

There are many ways to help a family member with stage 4 breast cancer, and you’ll learn many more as you go. Sit down with your loved one and talk about how you can help. Ask which day-to-day tasks they’d like to do themselves, and which they’d like assistance with.

Help your loved one look and feel more like themselves. If they lose their hair, offer to take them shopping for a wig if they want one, or pretty scarves or caps. Call or visit your local American Cancer Society location or go online to see what programs they have available. Some offer free wigs and other head coverings.

The Look Good Feel Better program is also a wonderful way to learn how to help your loved one look their best during treatment.

Understand that there may be emotional ups and downs. Try not to take them personally. Give your loved one space to work through their emotions at their own pace, but be there for support when needed. Help them find support groups online or locally so they can speak with others in similar situations.

Keep up with all of your love one’s doctor and treatment appointments, and take them to each visit. Keep a notebook of questions the two of you think of in between appointments so you remember to ask them. Help them with research so that you both understand treatment options.

Just be there. You won’t always say or do “the right thing,” and you definitely won’t have all the answers. That’s OK. Just being there can go a long way.

Remember that the first step toward taking good care of your loved one is taking care of yourself. After all, how can you expect to be anyone’s caretaker if you aren’t taking care of your own needs? Here are some ways to make sure you’re at your best:

  • Schedule time for yourself. Set aside time each day for “me time,” and make that time nonnegotiable.
  • Find a source of support. Family and friends can be great sources of support, but you may also want to find a support group created for people in your situation. These groups can be found locally, or even online.
  • Ask for help. It can be all too easy to spread yourself too thin when you’re taking care of a loved one with stage 4 breast cancer. Make sure you ask for help when you need it. You don’t have to be the only one who mows the lawn, cleans the house, does all the grocery shopping, and sits with your loved one all day.
  • Acknowledge your emotions. A stage 4 breast cancer diagnosis is scary, not just for the person receiving it, but also for those who love them. If you find that your emotions become overwhelming at times, talking to a professional counselor can help you cope with the situation.