Where Can Breast Cancer Go?

Breast cancer may not be discovered until it has already metastasized. It may also be discovered long after you were treated for breast cancer, and were found to have but had no evidence of further disease. The National Cancer Institute reports that breast cancer can metastasize to almost any location in the body, however, the most common locations are lymph nodes, lungs, liver and bones.1

Breast Cancer Metastasis to the Lungs

When breast cancer cells enter into the blood stream and freely circulate throughout the body they eventually go through the lungs. The lungs receive deoxygenated venous blood from the entire body and by breathing oxygen into your lungs, your blood receives oxygen and carries it throughout your body. Because your lungs are exposed to all of the blood in your body, cancer cells often metastasize to the lungs. In several studies, it was found that approximately 19% of metastases were first identified in the lungs.3

Symptoms of lung metastasis may be mistaken as a simple cough, cold or even bronchitis and they may come and go or become persistent. It may even act like new-onset asthma, mild shortness of breath, or even chronic shortness of breath. Sometimes the only symptom is rib pain, when the cancer has invaded the rib itself or the nerves that run along them.

Treatment of metastatic breast cancer of the lungs can include and combination of chemotherapy, surgery and radiation therapy depending on the size and location of the metastases. Radiation therapy may not be an option if it was used to treat the original breast cancer, because this area has already received its maximum dose of radiation exposure.

Breast Cancer Metastasis to the Bones

Breast cancer can also spread to the bones. Bone metastases are not the same as leukemia, which develops from the bone marrow. Instead, it establishes itself in the bone, begins to grow and weakens the structure of the bone. Symptoms of metastasis to the bone cancer include:

  • Broken bones with an unusually small amount of force
  • Bone pain, typically in the long bones of the legs and arms
  • Extreme fatigue
  • Unexplained weight

Breast cancer that has metastasized to bone is difficult to treat and cannot always be cured. Chemotherapy, hormone therapy, radiation therapy and bisphosphonates may all be options for treatment.

Other Locations for Metastasis

Breast cancer can spread to almost any location in the body. The liver is one of these locations and may only present as occasional pain on the right side of your abdomen.  If metastases are extensive, they can cause jaundice as they invade important structures within the liver.

Breast cancer can also metastasize to the brain, representing 10-20 % of all metastases. Symptoms may include persistent headaches, seizures, blurry vision or hallucinations. These symptoms may be very mild and may just come and go, not causing enough concern for the patient to tell their doctor. Make sure to report any unusual symptoms or unexplained sensations or pain to your doctor. It is critical for early detection of metastasis, leaving the most treatment options available.


1 Metastatic Cancer. (n.d.). Retrieved from National Insitiute of Cancer: www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/factsheet/Sites-Types/metastatic

2 Patt, D. A., Duan, Z., Fang, S., et al. (2007). Acute Myeloid Leukemia After Adjuvant Breast Cancer Therapy in Older Women: Understanding Risk. Journal of Clinical Oncology , 3871-3876.

3 Rosselli Del Turco, M., Palli, D., Cariddi, A., et al. (1994). Intensive Diagnostic Follow-up After Treatment of Primary Breast Cancer. Journal of the American Medical Association , 1593-1597.

4 Minn, A. J., Gupta, G. P., Siegel, P. M., et al. (2005). Genes that mediate breast cancer metastasis to lung. Nature , 518-524.

5 Kang, Y., Siegel, P. M., Drobnjak, M., et al. (2003). A multigenic program mediating breast cancer metastasis to bone. Cancer Cell , 537-549.

This article was originally published on July 27,2012 and last revision and update of it was 9/2/2015.