What Does Stage 4 Breast Cancer (Metastatic Breast Cancer) Mean?
Stage 4 breast cancer means that breast cancer has spread to other organs, such as the liver, brain, bones, lymph nodes, and lungs. Research reveals that breast cancer spreads to bones in about 85% of people with the disease, and up to 5% of breast cancer patients get a stage 4 diagnosis. Sometimes, initial treatment of early stage breast cancer may not eliminate all the cancer cells, allowing the tumor to metastasize. Although metastatic breast cancer is not curable, treatment options to manage and prolong one’s life are available.
How Does Breast Cancer Spread to the Lungs?
Initially, breast cancer affects the breasts, forming a tumor. However, as the tumor grows, cancer cells may break away and spread to a nearby tissue or travel to distant organs such as the lungs. Finally, once in the new tissue, the cancer cells may form a new tumor and start growing.
Common Stage 4 Breast Cancer Symptoms
- Persistent cough
- Shortness of breath
- Chest pain
- Repeated infections of the chest
- Weight loss
- Loss of appetite
- Chest ache
- Heavy chest
First of all, it is difficult to notice these symptoms in early stages. Thus, most people who notice them may dismiss them as cold or flu symptoms. However, if you have been treated for cancer in the past, ignoring these symptoms is especially a bad idea.
Metastatic Breast Cancer Diagnosis
Metastatic breast cancer diagnosis begins with a physical examination, blood tests, and a chest x-ray. Other imaging tests such as CT scans, positron emission tomography scans, and MRIs can be done to provide a more detailed overview.
Stage 4 Breast Cancer Treatments
Although there is no cure for metastatic breast cancer, medications for managing and prolonging the life of the patient are available. Metastatic breast cancer treatments aim to eliminate symptoms and improve the lifespan of the patient without compromising their quality of life. For the most part, the treatment depends on a number of factors, which include the type of breast cancer, previous treatments, overall health condition, tissues, and other parts of the body that the disease has affected.
Chemotherapy is the most effective treatment for patients with hormone receptor-negative tumors, hormone receptor-positive tumors that no longer respond to hormone therapy, and HER2-positive tumors. The main advantage of chemotherapy is that it shrinks tumors faster than hormone therapy. A line of chemotherapy drugs has been developed; in a case where the first chemotherapy drugs fail to work and the tumor continues growing, the second or third drug may be used.
On the whole, up to 25% of breast cancer types include a high amount of HER2 protein on the surface of the cancer cells. The HER2 protein helps in the growth of the cancer cells. Testing the tumor tissue can determine HER2 status.
Trastuzumab consists of formulated antibodies that target HER2-positive cancer cells and slows down the growth of the cancerous cells. Hence, it is an effective therapy that can help to slow down the growth of HER2-positive metastatic breast cancer and can be used alone or in tandem with chemotherapy. Moreover, in comparison to chemotherapy, Trastuzumab has fewer side effects as it does not cause hair loss, nausea, and has a lighter impact on the marrow.
Pertuzumab is an FDA-approved antibody that targets HER2-positive cancer cells. For instance, a cancer patient can take Pertuzumab in combination with Trastuzumab and/or chemotherapy to increase their lifespan. The possible side effects of Pertuzumab include diarrhea, vomiting, rash, dry skin, and headaches.
Lapatinib is a tyrosine kinase inhibitor that targets important cell functions. The drug works to block tyrosine kinase enzymes’ growth of cancer cells. Other tyrosine kinase inhibitors include Palbociclib and radiation. In short, targeted therapy helps to destroy cancer cells is some areas and lessen the symptoms of breast cancer in the lungs.
It is also important to treat and ease the symptoms that the malignant cells in the lungs cause. In addition, different medications that help to drain fluid accumulation around the lungs, unblock airways, and provide oxygen therapy are also available. Finally, some of the common pain medications include Polymerase, PARP inhibitors, phosphoinositide-3 kinase inhibitors, bevacizumab, and immunotherapy.
To summarize, there is currently no cure for metastatic breast cancer. Researchers are still doing clinical trials, and if you wish to participate in a clinical trial, you can ask your doctor about what options are available to you.