Treating individual metastatic tumors

Photo of a woman lost in thought
PantherMedia / Monkeybusiness Images

In metastatic breast cancer, the tumor has spread to other parts of the body, such as the bones, skin, lungs, liver or brain. Some of these metastatic tumors (metastases) can also be treated individually. That will depend on where they are.

Metastases in bones

If there are metastases in bones, the cancer cells interfere with the process of building up and breaking down bone tissue. This affects the stability of the bones, causing them to break more easily.

Pain in the bones can be treated with painkillers. The metastases can be treated using radiotherapy or surgery. The aim here is to strengthen the bones in order to prevent bone fractures and relieve the pain.

Medications such as bisphosphonates can slow down bone loss. Although these drugs can't completely prevent bones from being damaged by metastases, they at least slow down bone loss enough to reduce the likelihood of bone fractures or prevent fractures altogether. Severe side effects such as the death of jaw bone tissue (osteonecrosis of the jaw) are rare.

Another medication that inhibits bone loss is called denosumab. It can cause diarrhea, sweating and shortness of breath, as well as pain in the muscles and bones. It may also affect the body's metabolism of . Denosumab is often associated with the death of jaw bone tissue. It can also increase the risk of another cancerous tumor developing.

Metastases in internal organs and the skin

Metastases in the skin or internal organs – for instance, in the lungs or the liver – can be treated with surgery if

  • the metastases are only found in one lung or in one lobe of the liver (not in both),
  • the tumor has not grown back in the same place (recurrence),
  • there is no second tumor, and
  • there was more than one year between the first treatment and the occurrence of the metastases.

Alternatives to the surgical treatment of metastases in only one lobe of the liver include radiofrequency ablation (RFA), chemoembolization and stereotactic radiotherapy. The aim of these treatments is to damage the metastatic tumor tissue so badly that it can no longer grow. They do this using heat, medications, the closure of blood vessels or precisely targeted radiation. These approaches are usually followed by treatment with medication.

Metastatic tumors sometimes grow in a part of the lungs known as the pulmonary pleura too. This can lead to the build-up of fluid in the pleural cavity (the narrow space between the lungs and the ribs). The medical term for this is pleural effusion. Built-up fluid can cause breathing difficulties and pain. Surgery can be done to seal up this space and prevent fluid from building up there again.

Clearly outlined metastases on the skin or metastases in muscles can be surgically removed or treated with radiotherapy. If the metastases are still relatively small and located on the surface of the skin, ointments containing a chemotherapy drug might help too.

Metastases in the brain

Metastases in the brain can lead to severe pain. The pain may be caused by swelling or fluid building up in the brain. Depending on where brain metastases are, they can affect your sense of balance or result in paralysis.

Individual brain metastases can be operated on and then the affected part of the brain can be treated with radiotherapy. If there are several metastases in the brain, the whole brain is treated with radiotherapy. Another option is radiosurgery, where a very specific area of the brain is treated with high-dose radiation. That way, the surrounding tissue is exposed to less radiation than when radiotherapy is used on the whole brain.

Medication can be used here too, for instance to reduce pain and other effects of swelling in the brain.

Deutsche Gesellschaft für Gynäkologie und Geburtshilfe (DGGG), Deutsche Krebsgesellschaft (DKG). Interdisziplinäre S3-Leitlinie für die Früherkennung, Diagnostik, Therapie und Nachsorge des Mammakarzinoms. AWMF-Registernr.: 032-045OL. August 2019. (Leitlinienprogramm Onkologie).

Deutsche Krebsgesellschaft (DKG), Deutsche Gesellschaft für Hämatologie und medizinische Onkologie (DGHO), Deutsche Gesellschaft für Radioonkologie (DEGRO). S3-Leitlinie Supportive Therapie bei onkologischen PatientInnen. AWMF-Registernummer: 032-054OL. November 2019.

IQWiG health information is written with the aim of helping people understand the advantages and disadvantages of the main treatment options and health care services.

Because IQWiG is a German institute, some of the information provided here is specific to the German health care system. The suitability of any of the described options in an individual case can be determined by talking to a doctor. informedhealth.org can provide support for talks with doctors and other medical professionals, but cannot replace them. We do not offer individual consultations.

Our information is based on the results of good-quality studies. It is written by a team of health care professionals, scientists and editors, and reviewed by external experts. You can find a detailed description of how our health information is produced and updated in our methods.

Comment on this page

What would you like to share with us?

We welcome any feedback and ideas. We will review, but not publish, your ratings and comments. Your information will of course be treated confidentially. Fields marked with an asterisk (*) are required fields.

Please note that we do not provide individual advice on matters of health. You can read about where to find help and support in Germany in our information “How can I find self-help groups and information centers?

Updated on March 18, 2021
Next planned update: 2024

Authors/Publishers:

Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care (IQWiG, Germany)

How we keep you informed

Follow us on Twitter or subscribe to our newsletter or newsfeed. You can find all of our films online on YouTube.