Spreading the Word about Metastasis

How is Metastatic Breast Cancer Actually Diagnosed?


Before we discuss the tests that are used to diagnose metastatic breast cancer, here is a brief description of what it is:

“Metastasis means ‘to spread’. Though the cancer originated in the breast, it can spread to the nearby lymph nodes from where it can then be carried to other parts/organs of the body, transported by the lymph fluid or blood. The most common sites for breast cancer metastasis are the lungs, liver, bones and brain. Metastatic breast cancer is also classified as ‘Stage 4’ breast cancer.”

Advocates for Breast Cancer: How is Metastatic Breast Cancer Diagnosed?



{ But how does cancer spread? }


Cancer cell metastasis usually involves the following steps:

  1. Local invasion: Cancer cells invade nearby normal tissue.
  2. Intravasation: Cancer cells invade and move through the walls of nearby lymph vessels or blood vessels.
  3. Circulation: Cancer cells move through the lymphatic system and the bloodstream to other parts of the body.
  4. Arrest & Extravasation: Cancer cells arrest (stop moving) in small blood vessels called capillaries at a distant location. They then invade the walls of the capillaries and migrate into the surrounding tissue (extravasation).
  5. Proliferation: Cancer cells multiply at the distant location to form small tumors known as micrometastases.
  6. Angiogenesis: Micrometastases stimulate the growth of new blood vessels to obtain a blood supply. (A blood supply is needed to obtain the oxygen and nutrients necessary for continued tumor growth.)

— via National Cancer Institute 

{ Symptoms of Spreading? }


  • Sometimes, there are NO obvious symptoms!
  • The location and size of the metastasis will dictate the type and frequency of the symptoms. For example:

BONE = bone pain and potential fractures
BRAIN = headaches, dizziness/vertigo, seizures
LUNG = shortness of breath, a chronic cough
LIVER = jaundice (skin yellowing), abdominal swelling

{ Types of Tests? }


1. Blood Tests: to diagnose spread to liver and bones
2. Bone Scans: to test for spread to the bone
3. CT Scans and X-Rays: for spread to liver, abdomen or chest
4. Positron Emission Tomography (PET)
5. Other tests are also used depending on the results from the main 3 tests.

M is for Metastasis:

The TNM Breast Cancer Staging System

The M in this staging system is used to denote the absence or presence of metastases.

MO: the cancer has not spread. i.e. no metastases
M1: the cancer has spread beyond the breast and nearby lymph nodes
MX: metastases cannot be assessed

If you’ve just been diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer, we would be honoured if you’d tell us about it on our Facebook page – and, if you’d like to, we can even publish your story for you!



Read more of our posts and stories about MBC here.

VIDEO: “What Can I Expect from my CT Scan?”



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