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Metastatic breast cancer terms

Glossary of Metastatic Breast Cancer Terminology

The symptoms of metastatic breast cancer can vary greatly depending on where it is located. A metastatic breast cancer diagnosis can cause considerable confusion and become a lot to handle, both physically and emotionally. Breast cancer has its own terminology that is unfamiliar to most people, especially when they are newly diagnosed.

If you are having difficulty understanding certain terms used by your oncologist or dedicated healthcare provider, it can be a good idea to refer to this comprehensive glossary of metastatic breast cancer terminology to clear up any possible confusion. Helping you feel better informed can make you feel more in control during your treatment journey.

It is helpful to take the time you need to gather as much information about your diagnosis and treatment. This glossary provides helpful definitions and common terms you may hear after being diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer.

  • A-B-C
  • E-H-L
  • M-P-R
  • S-T-U-X

Advanced breast cancer
Advanced breast cancer usually refers to metastatic breast cancer (also called Stage IV breast cancer). Breast cancer that has spread locally in the area of the breast, but not to distant organs and tissues, is often referred to as ‘locally advanced breast cancer’ (or Stage III breast cancer)1-4.

A low number of red blood cells. May lead to feelings of tiredness, weakness or breathlessness5.

Anti-emetic drugs
Medicines to reduce or prevent nausea5.

Anti-hormonal therapy
A treatment to stop or slow the growth of hormone-sensitive tumors. Works by blocking the body’s ability to produce hormones or by interfering with hormone action. Also called endocrine therapy or hormonal therapy5.

Removal of a sample of tissue for testing to see if it contains cancer cells or to test for genetic markers3,5.

Also known as bone hardening or bone strengthening treatment. These are drugs to slow or prevent bone damage. They also reduce calcium levels5.

A treatment that destroys cancer cells using cytotoxic (anti-cancer) drugs. Sometimes shortened to ‘chemo’5.

Complete blood count
A blood test to determine the quantity of each type of blood cell within a sample of blood.
Also known as a blood cell count5.

CT scan
Short for ‘computed tomography scan’. Uses a series of X-rays to create a detailed picture of areas inside the body. You may be given a dye (either to swallow or as an injection) to help the tissues and organs show up more clearly5.

Cyclin-dependent kinase inhibitor (CDK inhibitor)
A CDK 4/6 inhibitor is a type of treatment that works to put the brakes on cell growth and division by blocking the action of proteins called CDK 4 and CDK 66,7.

Early breast cancer
Breast cancer that has not spread beyond the breast or the axillary (armpit) lymph nodes3,5.

Endocrine therapy
A treatment to stop or slow the growth of hormone-sensitive tumors. Works by blocking the body’s ability to produce hormones or interfering with hormone action. Also called antihormonal therapy or hormone therapy5.

One of the two female sex hormones (the other is progesterone). Estrogen acts in the body through the estrogen receptor located inside the cells of the body3,5.

Abbreviation of human epidermal growth factor receptor 2. HER2 is a protein involved in normal cell growth. Some breast cancer cells contain many more HER2 receptors than normal cells. This is called being HER2 positive (HER2+). If your cancer does not have HER2 it is called HER2-negative (HER2-)5.

Hormone receptor (HR)
A protein in your cells that binds to a specific hormone (estrogen or progesterone). Once the hormone has bound to its receptor, various changes take place in the cell. If your cancer grows in response to the hormone estrogen, your cancer could also be called estrogen receptor-positive (ER-positive or ER+). If your cancer grows in response to the hormone progesterone, it could be called progesterone receptor-positive (PR-positive or PR+)5.

Lymph nodes
Part of lymphatic system which is body immune system. The nodes filter lymphatic fluids to stop bacterial infection. Lymph nodes can be inflamed which indicates the spread of cancer. This is important to determine your cancer progression or stages5.

Tumors that occur when cancer spreads beyond where it first started in the body. For example, when breast cancer spreads from the breast to the bone it is said to have metastasized and tumors in the bone are referred to as bone metastases5.

Metastatic breast cancer
This is cancer that has spread beyond the breast to another part of the body. It may also be referred to as secondary breast cancer, stage IV (or Stage 4) breast cancer or advanced breast cancer1,3,5.

MRI scan
Abbreviation of ‘magnetic resonance imaging’ scan. Uses radiation and a powerful magnet to create detailed pictures of organs inside the body5.

PET scan
Abbreviation of ‘positron emission tomography’ scan. A small amount of radioactive liquid is injected into a vein and a scanner then takes a detailed picture that can be used when looking for abnormalities in the body5.

One of the two female sex hormones (the other is estrogen). Progesterone acts in the body through the progesterone receptor located inside the cells of the body3,5.

When tumors increase in size and/or the cancer spreads within the body it is said to have progressed5.

The use of high-energy radiation to kill cancer cells and shrink tumors. Also called radiation therapy5.

When cancer returns after a period of time during which no cancer could be detected. If this happens, it may occur months or years after the initial treatment. Cancer may recur where it first appeared or elsewhere in the body5.

When cancer returns after a period of improvement5.

When tumors shrink it is referred to as partial remission. If tumors shrink to the extent that they can no longer be detected by tests and scans it is referred to as complete remission5.

Secondary breast cancer
Another name for metastatic breast cancer1,5.

Stage III breast cancer
Cancer that has spread beyond the breast and lymph nodes immediately around it, but which has not reached distant organs. Also called locally advanced breast cancer4,5.

Stage IV breast cancer
The most advanced stage of breast cancer – when it has become metastatic1,5.

The stage of cancer (I–IV or 1–4) is used to describe how far the cancer has spread in your body5.

Targeted therapy
A treatment targeting specific characteristics of cancer cells to prevent them from growing and dividing3,5.

A scan which uses high frequency sound waves to build up a picture of the inside of the body5.

A type of radiation used for taking pictures or radiotherapy. A mammogram uses low doses of X-rays5.

  1. National Breast Cancer Foundation Australia (2020). Stage 4 (Advanced or Metastatic) Breast Cancer. Retrieved from https://nbcf.org.au/about-breast-cancer/diagnosis/stage-4-advanced-or-metastatic-breast-cancer/. Accessed 18 August 2020.
  2. Australian Government Cancer Australia (Aug 2020) Locally Advanced Breast Cancer. Retrieved from https://breast-cancer.canceraustralia.gov.au/affected-cancer/cancer-types/breast-cancer/types/locally-advanced-breast-cancer. Accessed 18 August 2020.
  3. Breast Cancer Network Australia.Glossary of breast cancer terms. Retrieved from https://www.bcna.org.au/understanding-breast-cancer/glossary-of-breast-cancer-terms. Accessed 18 August 2020.
  4. Australian Government Cancer Australia (Aug 2020) Stages of Breast Cancer. Retrieved from https://breast-cancer.canceraustralia.gov.au/affected-cancer/cancer-types/breast-cancer/diagnosis/stages-breast-cancer. Accessed 18 August 2020.
  5. National Cancer Institute (2020). NCI Dictionary of Cancer Terms. Retrieved from https://www.cancer.gov/publications/dictionaries/cancer-terms. Accessed 18 August 2020.
  6. Cadoo, KA., Gucap, A. &Traina, T A. (2014) Palbociclib: an evidence-based review of its potential in the treatment of breast cancer. Breast Cancer (Dove Med Press) 6:123-133. DOI: 10.2147/BCTT.S46725
  7. About IBRANCE. How IBRANCE works. Retrieved from https://www.ibrance.com/about-ibrance. Accessed 18 August 2020.