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An Overview of Stage 4 Breast Cancer

written by: Vasanth • edited by: Diana Cooper • updated: 4/23/2011

Stage 4 breast cancer is characterized by cancer cells that have spread to other organs. Symptoms include bone pain, weight loss and shortness of breath. Treatment options are designed to shrink tumors, reduce pain and prolong life. The five year survival rate is 16 to 20 percent.

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    Stage 4 Breast Cancer

    Cancer of the breast is characterized by abnormal cells in the breast tissue that multiply uncontrollably to form a tumor. The cells of the tumor can be benign or malignant. Benign cells don't spread to other tissues. Malignant cells spread to nearby tissues. As the cancer progresses, the tumor grows and penetrates the chest wall or skin of the breast. Eventually, the cancerous cells will spread to the lymph nodes near the breast.

    The most severe form of breast cancer is stage 4 breast cancer. At this point, the cancerous cells of the tumor have spread to distant regions of the body. Many organs are affected, including the lungs, liver and brain. The cancer may spread to the bones as well. At this stage, there are several signs which indicate that the cancer has metastasized. Several treatment options are available, but their effectiveness is limited to slowing the cancer progression.

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    Signs

    There are several signs that breast cancer has spread to other regions of the body. If the cancer has spread to the liver, its normal function is affected. This causes several problems in the body. Some of the noticeable symptoms include loss of appetite and weight loss.

    When the cancer reaches the brain, there are several symptoms that reflect the impact of the cancer cells on the brain's normal functions. Headaches, neurological pain and weakness are some of these symptoms.

    The symptoms of metastases to the lungs include shortness of breath, while cancer cells that have spread to the bones will cause bone pain.

    These symptoms are in addition to the signs of early stage breast cancer. These include the presence of a hard lump in or around the breast tissue or swelling under the arm. Also, the skin surrounding the nipple may be painful, scaly or pitted.

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    Treatment Options

    There are several treatment options for stage 4 breast cancer. Usually, chemotherapy is the primary treatment option since the cancer has spread to numerous parts of the body. It is designed to destroy cancer cells and slow its progression. Hormone therapy is another option. It hinders the production of estrogen, which is required by some types of cancer cells to grow. Another type of medication regimen used to combat breast cancer is biological therapy. The goal is to inhibit a specific protein that is responsible for cancer growth.

    Surgery and radiation therapy are options for treating the pain associated with metastases. Neither option will cure the body of cancer at this late stage. Additional medications are given to treat symptoms associated with chemotherapy, such as nausea, vomiting, fatigue and infections.

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    Prognosis

    Breast cancer that has spread to other parts of the body usually cannot be cured. The extensive nature of the cancer limits the effectiveness of treatment options. As a result, the long term outlook is grim. The five year survival rate for stage 4 breast cancer is between 16 and 20 percent.

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    References

    1. "Stages of Breast Cancer." Breastcancer.org. http://www.breastcancer.org/symptoms/diagnosis/staging.jsp

    2. "Stage IV Breast Cancer Treatment Options." WebMD. http://www.webmd.com/breast-cancer/stage-4-treatment-options

    3. "Breast Cancer Survival Rates." http://www.breastcancersurvivaltruth.com/Stage-Four-Breast-Cancer.php

    4. "Symptoms of Breast Cancer." About.com http://breastcancer.about.com/od/whatisbreastcancer/a/bc_symptoms.htm