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By NorthShore – Edward-Elmhurst Health
When cancer becomes metastatic, or spreads to other parts of the body, it’s a disconcerting shock.
Nearly all cancers have the potential to metastasize. Cancer that has spread to other parts of the body always has the same name as the original cancer. For example, breast cancer that has spread to a person’s lungs is called metastatic breast cancer, not lung cancer.
Actor Shannen Doherty recently revealed that her stage IV breast cancer had spread to her brain, and that she was preparing to undergo radiation.
Doherty first announced she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2015, and in 2017 reported it was in remission after a mastectomy, chemotherapy and radiation treatment.
However, in 2020, Doherty shared that the cancer had returned as stage IV, or metastatic breast cancer.
When metastatic cancer occurs, cancer cells break away from a tumor by traveling through the blood stream or lymph system.
If cancer cells travel through the lymph system, they could end up in lymph nodes or they can spread to organs. Other times, cancer cells break off from the main tumor and spread through the bloodstream. Some of these cells may settle in a new area, start to grow, and form new tumors.
“Whether cancer metastasizes depends on several factors, including the type of cancer, how aggressive or fast growing it is and how long it has been in the body before treatment,” said Christine Gresik, MD, an oncologist and breast surgeon with Edward-Elmhurst Medical Group.
Treatment for metastatic breast cancer depends on the original cancer and where it started, how much the cancer has spread and where it is located, and the patient’s age and health. It also includes testing to determine what type of breast cancer it is, if the BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutations are present and next generation sequencing to treat any mutations in the cancer cells.
Typically, breast cancers are treated according to the receptors on the cancer cell surface. Treatments may include chemotherapy, immunotherapy and/or targeted therapy. If being treated for a BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutation, targeted therapy is often used.
Fortunately, breast cancer research has led to advances in treatment that provide women a way to manage the disease and live productive lives for many years.
“Once cancer spreads, it can be hard to control. Since metastatic cancer is advanced, the goal of treatment is to help a patient live as well as possible for as long as possible,” Dr. Gresik said. “Stage four treatment options are palliative, not a cure, but can help people live for many years with metastatic cancer.”
Breast cancer is a personal journey that requires individual attention, expertise and, most of all, a team to rally around you. At NorthShore’s Kellogg Cancer Center and the Center for Breast Health, our breast cancer experts will partner with you every step of the way.
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