Cancer that originates in the breast tissue and is contained to the breasts is incapable of being deadly. However, when the cancer spreads to the lymph nodes and makes its way through the bloodstream to more vital organs, such as the liver, bones, brain, or lungs, it’s a much more dangerous adversary.
When cancer spreads to an organ where it didn’t originate, it’s referred to as metastasis, which is the fourth stage of cancer. The four organs mentioned above are some of the most common places for breast cancer to spread or metastasize. Today we’ll take an in-depth look at what happens when cancer metastasizes to the lungs, talk about what to look for, and discuss the prognosis and treatment options.
Here are some basic things to know about metastatic breast cancer in the lungs:
What causes metastasis to the lungs?
Metastasis to the lung, also known as secondary breast cancer in the lung, is caused in the same manner as other metastases. Tumor cells grow and divide at a rapid rate, and some of those cells break off from the primary tumor and enter the bloodstream. From there, they can travel to other areas of the body, including the lungs.
During this time, the rogue cells will undergo a variety of changes to make them more resistant to the immune system and allow them to survive in the lungs. They may even lie dormant during treatment, not growing but also not dying, until they have the right environment to begin multiplying again.
How is metastasis in the lungs diagnosed?
If you have symptoms or are at high risk for lung metastasis, your doctor might start with a physical examination and blood tests and decide on the next step from there. Common tests to diagnose metastasis in the lungs include a chest X-ray, a CT scan, or a PET scan. Your doctor might also choose to test a mucus sample or perform a bronchoscopy or needle biopsy of the lung.
What are the symptoms of metastatic breast cancer in the lungs?
If your breast cancer has metastasized to your lungs, you may not notice any symptoms right away. Your first symptoms are likely to feel a little like cold or flu symptoms. They might include persistent cough, shortness of breath, difficulty breathing, wheezing, or fatigue. You could also experience pain in your lungs, coughing up blood, loss of appetite, weight loss, or recurrent chest infections.
What treatments are available for metastatic breast cancer in the lungs?
Metastatic breast cancer that has migrated to the lungs is stage IV cancer and is considered incurable. However, many patients can still have several years of high-quality life with proper treatment to slow the growth and spread of cancer cells. Some options include chemotherapy, hormonal therapy, targeted therapy, and radiation. Your doctor may suggest one of these treatments or a combination.
Your treatment plan will likely depend on several factors, such as how extensive the cancer is within the lung, whether the cancer has spread to other organs, what symptoms you have, what treatments you’ve already had, whether you’ve been through menopause, and your general health. You can help yourself stay healthy for cancer treatment by eating well, getting enough sleep, and exercising as much as possible.
What is the prognosis of metastatic breast cancer in the lungs?
Metastatic cancer is the most advanced form of cancer and is not considered curable. However, some people survive for many years with their disease and live a happy and healthy life despite their disease.
The average five-year survival rate for metastatic breast cancer in the lungs is about 22 percent. Your ability to survive and thrive for several more years depends on a variety of factors, such as your age, your overall health, the size of your tumors, how the tumors respond to treatment, and whether the cancer has metastasized to just the lungs or to other areas of the body as well.
What complications does lung metastasis present?
Every type of metastasis comes with its own risks for complications. Some of these complications may be serious, especially one with a compromised immune system due to treatment. Others are simply something to watch out for and try to avoid so that you can stay healthy enough to continue being treated and maintain a high quality of life.
One potential complication of lung metastasis is fluid in the chest. If cancer cells grow in the pleural space between the lung and the chest wall, they may cause a build-up of excess fluid, which leads to pain in the chest, coughing, shortness of breath, and wheezing. This is treatable by draining the fluid or performing a procedure called pleurodesis, in which the space between the lung and chest wall is manually closed so it cannot collect fluid.
Other potential complications of metastatic cancers include psychological impact and toxicity from treatment. You may experience depression, anxiety, or excess stress from the former, and it might be a good idea to seek psychological treatment to help you cope. With the latter, you could experience constipation, vomiting, nausea, loss of appetite, fatigue, infection, or just generally lowered immune system function. These are important symptoms to watch out for as you try to stay healthy.
Talk to your doctor right away if you experience any signs of complications with your lung metastasis. These complications are treatable, but only if your doctor knows they exist. You may also be able to modify your treatment plan or make lifestyle changes to help with symptoms.
If you have cancer, metastatic or otherwise, you can practice living a healthy lifestyle, avoid smoking, and see your doctor regularly to help keep your cancer from progressing and get treatment as recommended by your doctor to slow the spread of your cancer and stay as healthy as possible. You might also want to work on reducing your stress levels and increasing your vitamin D intake.
Most importantly of all, do not lose hope! Metastatic breast cancer does not have to keep you from living a fulfilling life.
Elizabeth Nelson is a wordsmith, an alumna of Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, a four-leaf-clover finder, and a grammar connoisseur. She has lived in west Michigan since age four but loves to travel to new (and old) places. In her free time, she. . . wait, what’s free time?