Dealing with Stage 4 Breast Cancer

For most women the words "breast cancer" signifies a dreaded diagnosis. Such a diagnosis normally causes the cancer patient to raise many questions. Such a diagnosis also sends the physician in search of more information. The physician usually wants to know the exact stage of the breast cancer. The physician hopes that the newly-discovered cancer is not a stage 4 breast cancer.

Once a physician has discovered a tumor in a woman's breast, then that physician normally seeks answers to two questions: "What is the size of the tumor?" and "How far has the tumor spread?"   The answers to those two questions should reveal the stage of the tumor. Those answers should confirm or deny any chance that the woman's breast tumor has become a stage 4 breast cancer.

A stage 4 breast cancer does not simply appear overnight. It develops from a stage 3 breast cancer.  A diagnosis of stage 4 breast cancer does not represent the sort of diagnosis that a physician likes to give to a patient. A diagnosis of stage 4 breast cancer means that the tumor is not only invasive, it has also metastasized.

In a stage 0 breast cancer, the malignant cells are all confined to a duct within the breast. When a physician finds that a stage 0 cancer has advanced to a stage 1 cancer then the physician knows that malignant cells have found a way to leave the breast duct, and to migrate to tissue adjacent to a small, 2 cm, breast tumor. 

If a patient is told that she has a stage 2 breast cancer, then her physician has noticed one of two things: 1) The tumor is larger than 2 cm; or 2) The cancer has spread to the lymph nodes under the arm. If a breast tumor expands to a size greater than 5 cm, or if a breast cancer invades the surrounding skin or chest wall, then it becomes a stage 3 breast cancer.

While discovery of an invasive breast cancer raises a red flag, the discovery of a stage 4 cancer produces an even greater level of concern. In a stage 4 breast cancer, the cells have moved into either the lymph nodes or bloodstream, and those cells have thus managed to travel to another section of the patient's body. In other words, the cells have metastasized.

The discovery of a stage 4 breast cancer has major implications. It means that the patient requires more than just standard surgical treatment. The patient with such an advanced cancer can not be cured by a simple mastectomy. The patient will need to undergo one or more sessions of adjuvant therapy.

A surgical treatment removes malignant cells from a limited area. When malignant cells have traveled into several areas of a patient's body, then those cells must be killed with either radiation or strong chemicals.  Both radiation and the strong cancer-fighting chemicals prevent the progression of the cell cycle. They thus hinder the growth of rapidly growing cells, such as the cells in a breast tumor.

Some breast cancers respond to hormone therapy. The breast cancer patient needs to get all the facts. The patient must ask lots of questions, so that healthcare providers feel obligated to share all of the facts regarding the treatment and prognosis for the patient's existing breast cancer.

If the healthcare providers offer truthful and clear answers, then the patient and the physician should be able to decide on an effective treatment plan. Together they should manage to do away with that existing breast cancer. Then the patient and doctor must together watch for any signs of a recurrence.

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