Metastatic breast cancer treatment

Even though metastatic breast cancer is not curable, it is treatable. You and your doctor will decide on a plan focused on what’s most important to you in your life. Conventional treatment works to ease symptoms and side effects while keeping the cancer under control. It’s normal for treatment choices to change over time as cancer develops resistance to medicines. But with treatment tailored to your medical and personal needs, the cancer can often be managed over the long term in a way that supports a continued sense of well-being.

Types of metastatic breast cancer treatment

On this page, we’ll guide you through the five main types of conventional metastatic breast cancer treatment. You may have one or more of these treatments, depending on the cancer’s unique characteristics.

Because metastatic breast cancer can have highly individual traits from person to person, your treatment plan may be very different than someone else’s. Effective treatment is designed to be as precise as possible, based on

  • the cancer’s unique biology
  • location of metastases in the body
  • symptoms you are having now
  • your overall medical history
  • other breast cancer treatments you may have received

Hormonal therapy

Hormonal therapy is medicine that slows or stops the growth of hormone receptor-positive breast cancer by lowering or blocking estrogen in the body. If you were diagnosed with hormone receptor-positive metastatic breast cancer, doctors will usually recommend hormonal therapy as your first treatment.

Read more about hormonal therapy for metastatic breast cancer.

Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy is a systemic treatment that destroys quickly dividing cells to stop or slow cancer growth. Given by infusion or taken as a pill, chemotherapy is often the primary treatment for stage IV breast cancer that is hormone receptor-negative and HER2-negative because these cancers cannot be treated with medicines that target hormone or HER2 receptors. If you’ve been diagnosed with hormone receptor-positive metastatic breast cancer that’s caused more severe problems, such as trouble breathing, chemotherapy may be given first because it works faster than hormonal therapy.

Learn more about chemotherapy for metastatic breast cancer.

Radiation therapy

Radiation therapy uses high-energy x-rays on areas of cancer metastasis. It’s believed that radiation breaks DNA strands in cancer cells so they can no longer divide and grow. Radiation therapy is often recommended to reduce pain caused by bone metastasis and to manage symptoms in the lungs or brain. Your doctor may recommend radiation therapy to shrink tumors, decrease pain, and improve your quality of life.

Read more about radiation therapy for metastatic breast cancer

Targeted therapy

Targeted therapies are medicines or other substances that identify and attack specific cancer cells, including HER2-positive and hormone receptor-positive cells. Targeted therapy may have fewer side effects that other kinds of cancer treatment. Sometimes, targeted therapies help other types of treatment to be more effective.

Learn more about targeted therapy for metastatic breast cancer

Immunotherapy

Immunotherapy is medicine that helps your immune system recognize and attack cancer cells. Many immunotherapies target certain genetic mutations in cancer cells. Triple-negative breast cancer (cancer that tests negative for hormone and HER2 receptors) has more gene mutations than other breast cancer subtypes, so if you’ve been diagnosed with triple-negative metastatic breast cancer, immunotherapy may be an option for you.   

Learn more about immunotherapy for metastatic breast cancer

Taking breaks from treatment

There may be situations when it feels like getting treatment or managing side effects could get in the way of enjoying special events that are important to you, such as vacations or gatherings. You can always talk with your doctor about scheduling a treatment break during times like this.

It’s also possible to take treatment breaks just to give your body a rest from treatment and side effects. If you think you may need or want a treatment break, talk with your healthcare team as soon as you start to feel the need.

Questions to ask before starting treatment

It can sometimes be overwhelming to try to capture all the information your doctor is sharing with you about treatment options, so it’s a good idea to write down any questions you have ahead of your appointment. Here are some questions you can ask your doctor about treatment options:

  • Can I get treatment through a clinical trial?
  • If a trial isn’t open here, can I go to a nearby site?
  • What are the benefits of the treatment?
  • What are the short-term side effects?
  • What are the long-term side effects?
  • How is the treatment given?
  • How long does it take to receive treatment?
  • What is the schedule for this treatment? What are “on” and “off” days”?
  • Which medicines will I get at which times?
  • Will this treatment make me feel sick and prevent me from enjoying daily activities?
  • What can I do to make sure I can continue to do the things I love while I take this treatment?
  • What side effects mean I should call you immediately?
  • Why do you believe this treatment is the best option for me?
  • If this treatment doesn’t work, or makes me feel too sick, what are my other options?

Return to Diagnosis & treatment overview