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Secondary Breast Cancer Advice and Information

By: Beth Morrisey MLIS - Updated: 16 Sep 2012 | comments*Discuss
Cancer Breast Cancer Support Resources

When cancer cells multiply and form a tumour this is known as the primary cancer site. In the case of breast cancer, the primary site is in the breast. However, some of these cells may break away and spread beyond the breast to other areas of the body via the lymphatic or circulatory systems. The new site (or sites) of cancer is then often described as secondary. This means that secondary breast cancer is the result of cancer cells spreading beyond the breast and causing tumours in a secondary location. This new tumour may be called a metastisis, and the breast cancer may be described as having metastisised. Secondary breast cancer may also be described as metastatic breast cancer or advanced breast cancer.

The Spread of Breast Cancer

Breast cancer generally spreads beyond the breast either via the lymphatic system or the circulatory system. If breast cancer cells invade the bloodstream or are carried by lymph fluid then they can move around the body and may become trapped in other organs or tissues. When they become trapped, these cells may again grow and multiply, resulting in a new tumour. However, this is not necessarily the outcome of cancer cells that spread beyond the breast. Cells may escape and die, meaning that they can not contribute to a new tumour, or cells may escape and turn inactive. They may remain inactive for years before becoming active again and contributing to a new tumour. At this time it is not known why cells turn inactive or how they are re-activated at a later time.

Secondary Breast Cancer Sites

Depending upon how breast cancer cells spread they can travel to most parts of the body. When cancer cells spread via the lymphatic system they can end in lymph nodes anywhere in the body, though the lymph nodes in the neck are very commonly affected. Cancer cells spread via the circulatory system can also end in lymph nodes but also in bones, in the liver, in the lungs or even in the brain. When breast cancer cells do spread they normally only affect one other part of the body, though it is possible for them to spread to more than one other area as well. If breast cancer spreads to areas near the chest (skin, bones or muscles) but does not spread to any other area of the body then it is often described as locally advanced breast cancer. ("Local" being the proximity to the breast and "advanced" describing that it has indeed left the breast.)

Secondary breast cancer is breast cancer that has spread beyond the breast. This can occur when cancer cells invade either the blood stream and are then moved throughout the body via the circulatory system or invade lymph fluid and are then moved around via the lymphatic system. Eventually these cells are trapped in another organ or tissue and may multiply and contribute to the growth of another tumour. However, these cells may also die or turn inactive only to be re-activated at another time. No one can guess how these cells will act when they escape the breast, so all cancer cells are treated as harmful.

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