When you have metastatic or stage 4 breast cancer, it means your disease has spread beyond your breasts. The cancer may have reached organs like the lungs, liver, bones, and brain.
There are many available treatments for metastatic breast cancer, including chemotherapy, targeted therapies, and hormone therapy. Once your cancer has spread, it’s not curable, but you can slow it down with the right treatment.
Having a late-stage cancer can weigh heavily on you. Finding the right support is important to help you manage the emotional stress that comes from living with cancer.
You’re more likely to get breast cancer once you reach menopause because the risk for this cancer increases with age. The average age for a breast cancer diagnosis is 62, according to the American Cancer Society.
Menopause doesn’t cause breast cancer, but the age when you start menopause might affect your risk. Women who start menopause after age 55 are at higher risk for breast cancer because they’re exposed to estrogen for a longer period.
Estrogen stimulates the growth of breast cancer. Taking hormone therapy containing estrogen and progestin to relieve menopause symptoms may also increase your odds of getting breast cancer.
A cancer diagnosis can feel so overwhelming at first that you may not know where to turn. There are a lot of support systems in place to help people with metastatic breast cancer.
First, you can turn to the people closest to you — your friends, family, partner, or grown children. Counseling is available, either one-on-one with a therapist or in a group setting. Your healthcare team is also there to help you feel better, both physically and emotionally.
A palliative care specialist can help if you’re dealing with side effects from your cancer or its treatment. Palliative care isn’t the same as hospice. It focuses on relieving or preventing symptoms so that you’re more comfortable.
Metastatic breast cancer support groups are places to meet and learn from other people who’ve been on the same journey. Your cancer hospital may offer support groups, or you can find one through an organization like the American Cancer Society. A support group can make you feel less alone.
Support is also available online. You’ll find groups on social media sites, or through websites like:
The goal of treatment is to prolong your life by killing as many cancer cells as possible to slow your cancer. Breast cancer treatments are effective, but they can cause side effects.
Chemotherapy can tire you out and cause hair loss and mouth sores. This treatment may also damage the white blood cells your body needs to fight infections. Hormone therapy can worsen menopause symptoms like vaginal dryness and loss of libido.
Before you start treatment, ask your doctor or nurse which side effects your treatment could cause. If you know in advance which ones to expect, you can put a plan in place to manage them.
Treatment side effects can range in severity from person to person. They may be so mild that they don’t bother you, or they could be severe enough to disrupt your life.
If the side effects are severe, you may want to stop your treatment entirely. But it’s important that you stay on your medication to properly manage your cancer. Your doctor can address just about every side effect you may have from your cancer and its treatments.
Daily exercise, talk therapy, and regular rest breaks can help you cope with fatigue. Counseling and antidepressant medications can help relieve sadness or anxiety. Yoga, talk therapy, and meditation may help you sleep better.
Tell your medical team right away about any problems you experience. They can work with you to find a solution.
Breast cancer can be painful, especially in the late stage. Some cancer treatments can also cause pain.
You never have to accept or live with pain. Your doctor can prescribe medications and other methods to manage it.
Sometimes making a change in your treatment helps, too. A palliative care or pain specialist can help you find the pain relief method that will give you the most comfort while causing the fewest side effects.
Your doctor’s goal in treating you is not only to slow your cancer but also to help you maintain a good quality of life throughout the process. If you can’t get out of bed in the morning because you’re in so much pain, you may not be getting the holistic care you need.
When addressing your quality of life, your healthcare team will focus on your emotional well-being, including any worries, anxiety, or stress you feel. They’ll check that you’re managing symptoms like pain and fatigue. And they’ll offer solutions so you can go about your daily routine with some sense of normalcy.
Your sex life may be one of the biggest losses you experience during treatment. Metastatic breast cancer can affect both your desire for sex and your ability to have sex comfortably.
Vaginal dryness from hormone therapy can make sex feel painful. Chemotherapy can leave you too tired for lovemaking. Fatigue, nausea, and anxiety may reduce your libido.
Because your doctor might not bring up intimacy issues, you may need to bring up the subject yourself. Let your doctor know about any physical or emotional problems that are affecting your sex life.
Sometimes couples therapy can help. The therapist will teach you other ways of being intimate with your partner, besides intercourse. Therapy can also help you communicate better with one another while you’re going through treatment.
Gene tests are another important part of navigating your treatment options. Your doctor may test you to find out if an inherited gene change called a mutation caused your cancer.
The BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes affect cancer cell growth. Mutations to these genes can cause breast cancer cells to grow. Having these mutations may affect how well your breast cancer treatments work.
Your results on genetic tests can help your doctor fine-tune your treatment. For example, some targeted therapies are only effective in people with certain inherited gene mutations. You can share the results of your genetic tests with relatives who may want to learn their breast cancer risk.
Finding out that you have late-stage breast cancer can be overwhelming and upsetting. Lean on your healthcare team, friends, family, and support groups as you navigate your cancer journey.
If you don’t feel well during your treatment, let your healthcare team know. Your doctor can recommend ways to manage both the physical and emotional side effects of your cancer.