The liver is a common area of the body to which breast cancer cells spread. About half of people diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer may have cancer travel to the liver, called liver metastases.
Your liver is located on the right side of your body, near the top of your belly. It is an important organ that cleans toxins from your blood and helps digest fat. It processes nutrients from the food you eat so your body can use them well. It also processes the medicine you take, including cancer medicines.
A healthy liver helps your body better deal with the chemicals in cancer treatments. Keeping your liver as healthy as possible is important in treating cancer, so it’s important to catch and treat liver metastases early. It’s especially important not to hurt your liver with alcohol or herbal products, such as certain over-the-counter dietary supplements. If you already take any vitamins or supplements, be sure to tell your doctor. Some may interact with your cancer treatment.
Liver metastases are areas of cancer that develop when breast cancer cells travel to the liver and form tumors. These tumors can affect how your liver works. Breast cancer can spread to any part of the liver. It’s possible to have just one tumor in the liver, but most people who get liver metastases develop more than one tumor.
After the bones and lungs, the liver is the third most common place for breast cancer to spread. About half of those with metastatic breast cancer develop liver metastases. Women with metastatic breast cancer to the liver usually have metastases in other parts of the body as well, but not always. It’s possible for any subtype of breast cancer to spread to the liver, and for people of any background or age to develop liver metastases.
Pain or fullness in the belly can be early signs of liver metastases. But breast cancer that has spread to the liver may not always cause symptoms.
Remember to always tell your oncologist about changes you notice in your body. If you have liver metastases, watch out for these serious symptoms:
- Sudden weight loss
- New pain, swelling or discomfort in the legs or belly
- A hard time swallowing
- Jaundice, a condition that causes the skin or the whites of the eyes to turn yellow
- Black bowel movements
- Vomiting more than twice a day for more than a day, or vomiting blood
Call your doctor right away if you experience any of those symptoms. They suggest your liver is working poorly, which suggests your cancer treatment is also working poorly. If your liver metastases are causing symptoms like these, your doctor may recommend a different treatment or change the dose of your current treatment.
A blood test that shows a higher-than-normal level of liver enzymes in the blood can suggest liver metastases. Imaging tests, like a CT scan, MRI, PET scan or ultrasound, are used to look for metastases. These tests create pictures of your liver and can show whether cancer has spread there.
Sometimes an imaging test isn’t enough for a doctor to know you have liver metastases. In that case, a doctor may recommend a biopsy, during which a radiologist will take a very small piece of the liver. A pathologist then tests the piece of liver for breast cancer cells.
Liver metastases are typically treated with systemic treatments like chemotherapy and targeted therapies. Less often, local treatments are an option. Local therapies can include radiation therapy; chemoembolization, in which chemotherapy is delivered directly to tumors; ablation therapy, in which tumors are injected with a substance, like electricity, freezing cold gas or alcohol, to destroy them; or surgery.
If the cancer causes blocks in the bile ducts that help the liver get rid of waste, procedures to unblock them may be part of your treatment.