Stage IV breast cancer is an advanced form of breast cancer that has progressed beyond the breast to more remote areas of the body. It is a form of metastatic cancer, meaning the cancer is growing in areas other than the location where it originated, and the prognosis can be grim for patients, but it is potentially survivable. Stage IV breast cancer treatment usually needs to be aggressive in order to stop further growth of the tumor.
Sometimes, patients have what is known as primary metastatic cancer; at the time of initial diagnosis, the cancer has already started to spread. This can happen when people delay care for suspicious signs like breast lumps or when a cancer evades detection until it has started spreading to areas like the lungs, brain, and bones. In other cases, stage IV breast cancer occurs as a recurrent cancer, developing after treatment fails, or when treatment fails to halt progression of the cancer.
Treatment options for stage IV breast cancer can include surgery to remove tumors, chemotherapy, radiation, and hormones. It is usually not possible to cure the cancer, but it may be controllable with therapy. Some patients respond well to treatment and experience a shrinkage of the tumors and an extended lifespan. Other patients may not respond to treatment and palliative care may be recommended to keep them comfortable in their remaining months of life.
Patients diagnosed with stage IV breast cancer may find it helpful to see a specialist for a second opinion on the cancer and the treatment options. Clinicians have radically different approaches to cancer treatment and some may have more information about clinical trials as a potential treatment plan. Patients with advanced cancer are usually eligible for clinical trials and compassionate use programs, as it is understood that their chances of survival are much lower than patients with less advanced cancers of the breast.
If treatment is successful and patients survive stage IV breast cancer, they will need to be monitored for life for signs of recurring or spreading tumors. This should include regular doctor visits, as well as medical imaging studies, and patients are usually encouraged to report any suspicious signs and symptoms to their care providers. It is also advisable to make sure the history of metastatic cancer is recorded in the patient's chart, as it can be important to know when patients are being evaluated and treated for other conditions.