Symptoms of secondary breast cancer

Sometimes people see their GP when they have symptoms such as pain or they are unusually tired. Your GP may arrange tests to check if these symptoms are due to the spread of your breast cancer. Secondary breast cancer can be diagnosed in a number of ways.

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Symptoms of secondary breast cancer

Every person’s experience of secondary breast cancer is different. Your symptoms will depend on the part of your body affected by secondary breast cancer, and you may not have many symptoms. However, if you feel you have had a change in your health and you are worried about it, it is important to discuss your concerns with

your doctor. The following section describes symptoms that you may experience.

The bone

Pain

Secondary breast cancer in the bone can cause pain. Diagnosis is made by bone scan, X-ray and sometimes CT scan.

Weakness in the bone

A secondary cancer in the bone may gradually damage some of the bone tissue, causing the bone to become weaker. Early treatment may be considered to prevent fractures (radiation treatment, medication and/or surgery).

Spinal cord compression (pressure on your spinal cord)

If cancer has spread to the bones in your spine, this may cause pressure on your spinal cord. This is known as spinal cord compression. 

Hypercalcaemia (high levels of calcium in the blood)

Extra calcium sometimes leaks into the blood when bones are damaged by secondary cancer. Hypercalcaemia is diagnosed by a blood test and is usually treated with medication. If your blood calcium is high you may be feeling sick, tired or confused, be more thirsty than usual, have headaches or be constipated.

The liver

Breast cancer that has spread to the liver may cause symptoms including:

• weight loss

• lack of appetite

• tiredness

• nausea (feeling sick)

• jaundice (yellowing of the skin)

• discomfort or pain around the liver (the right side of the abdomen)

• swelling of the abdomen (ascites)

• right shoulder-tip pain.

Diagnosis is made by blood tests or CT, ultrasound or MRI scan

The lungs

Cancer within the lungs or on the lining of the lungs may cause the following symptoms:

• shortness of breath

• dry cough

• tiredness

• chest pain.

Cancer cells sitting on the outside of the lungs can irritate the lining that covers the lungs (the pleura). This may cause fluid to build up, which presses on the lungs and can make breathing difficult. Difficulty breathing can be frightening, but there are many ways to relieve breathlessness with treatment. Seek medical attention immediately if you:

• experience breathing problems

• cough up blood

• have chest pain or

• feel very unwell.

Diagnosis is made by chest X-ray, ultrasound scan or CT scan. The Cancer Society has an information sheet, Breathlessness (being short of breath), which offers suggestions that may help if you are having difficulty breathing. 

The brain

Breast cancer that has spread to the brain may cause symptoms of:

• headaches

• nausea and/or vomiting

• weakness in an arm or a leg

• unsteadiness while walking

• changes in vision or speech

• seizures

• confusion, disorientation or personality changes (rare).

• Diagnosis is made by CT or MRI scan 

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