Metastatic breast cancer is cancer that has spread beyond the breast to other parts of the body. Nearly 10% of women are diagnosed with metastatic disease when they are first diagnosed with breast cancer. Because the cancer has already spread, surgery is not always part of the treatment plan. Still, doctors sometimes recommend surgery to improve the overall response to treatment or to ease pain and other symptoms.
A study found that women with metastatic breast cancer at first diagnosis who had the breast tumor (the primary tumor) removed lived twice as long as women diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer who didn't have the primary tumor removed. Women who had surgery also were 40% more likely to be alive 5 years after diagnosis, compared to women who didn't have surgery:
The researchers looked at the medical records of 728 women who had been diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer; 405 of the women had the primary tumor in the breast removed. The researchers compared the medical outcomes of the women who had surgery to women who didn't have surgery.
- Half of the women who had the primary tumor removed lived more than 2 1/2 years; half of the women who didn't have surgery lived for more than 14 months.
- Five years after diagnosis, 25% of the women who had the primary tumor removed were alive compared to 13% of the women who didn't have the primary tumor removed.
It's possible that the differences in survival time may have been because of differences between the women, rather than whether they didn't or didn't have surgery. Compared to the women who didn't have the primary tumor removed, women who had surgery were:
- more likely to have only one metastasis (only one area where the cancer had spread)
- less likely to have other medical problems
- more likely to have received radiation therapy or chemotherapy
All of the above factors can influence survival rates. Still, the research results suggest that survival rates might improve for some women diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer if the primary tumor in the breast is removed. More research is needed so doctors can determine which women diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer would get the most benefits from surgery.
If you've just been diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer, you may want to talk to your doctor about the results of this study. If your doctor isn't recommending surgery as part of your treatment plan, ask why and how the details of your specific situation were considered in making treatment recommendations. If you have any doubts or concerns about the recommended treatment plan, you may want to get a second opinion. Most doctors are comfortable with patients getting a second opinion and can help you get one in a timely way.
You can learn more about treatments for metastatic breast cancer in the Treatments for Metastatic Breast Cancer pages.