Breast cancer: How fast does it spread?

By Jamie Eske    

Reviewed by Yamini Ranchod, PhD, MS

How fast can breast cancer
spread? | Breast cancer growth | Symptoms | Diagnosis | Treatment | Outlook

People who have found a lump,
have recently had their breast cancer diagnosed, or know someone who has may
wonder how fast it can grow or spread.

Breast cancer is the most
common cancer diagnosis among women in the United States.
It is very hard to estimate
how a person’s breast cancer will change over the course of a year. Different
types of breast cancer grow at different rates, and many factors affect its
growth and chances of spreading.
This article looks at how
quickly breast cancer might spread, common ways that breast cancer can
progress, and the long-term outlook for the condition.

How fast can breast cancer

It is hard to say exactly how
quickly breast cancer can grow, including the timeframe, as the disease affects
each person differently.
Cancer occurs due to mutations
in human cells. Mutations do not follow normal, predictable patterns of cell
division, so it is difficult to predict the progression.
Tumors appear when damaged
cells replicate over and over to form a clump of abnormal cells. Breast cancer
cells can break off and move through the lymph or blood vessels to other areas
of the body.
If breast cancer cells begin
to grow in another body part, this is called metastasis. Breast cancer is most
likely to metastasize to the lymph nodes, lungs, and bones.
Regardless of the location of
the new tumor, doctors still consider it to be breast cancer.
Breast cancer growth and its
chances of spreading depend on the following:

Type of breast cancer

Breast cancer can be invasive
or noninvasive:

  • Noninvasive breast cancer will
    not spread beyond the ducts or lobules.
  • Invasive breast cancer can
    spread to the surrounding connective tissue, the lymph nodes, and other areas
    of the body.
Grade (1–3)

A doctor will grade breast
cancer (1–3) based on how much the cancer cells look like normal breast cells:

  • grade 1 is a slower-growing
  • grade 3 is a faster-growing
A higher grade means that a
cancer is more likely to grow faster and to spread to other areas of the breast
or body.

Stage (0–4)

Healthcare professionals
describe the extent of breast cancer progression in stages. This information is
incredibly important when making decisions regarding treatment.
The stages of breast cancer
are as follows:

  • Stage 0. Doctors consider
    breast cancer at this stage noninvasive, and it is only present in the ducts or
    the lobules. Ductal carcinoma in situ is a form of stage 0 breast cancer.
  • Stage 1. Breast cancer at this
    stage is invasive, but it remains small and near the primary site. Stage 1A
    involves tumors that are 2 centimeters or smaller and have not reached the
    lymph nodes. At stage 1B, the cancer has reached the lymph nodes.
  • Stage 2. Stage 2 breast cancer
    is invasive, tumors may be larger than in stage 1, and the cancer may have
    spread to the lymph nodes.
  • Stage 3. Stage 3 breast cancer
    is invasive, tumors may be larger, and cancer has spread to the lymph nodes,
    possibly to several. Breast cancer at this stage has not spread to other
  • Stage 4. Breast cancer has
    developed in other areas of the body outside the breast and lymph nodes, often
    in the bones, lungs, brain, or liver. Treatment at this stage focuses on
    controlling the cancer and preventing it from spreading any farther.
Cancer that has already spread
to other areas of the body, or stage 4 cancer, is more likely to spread
Although it is difficult to
assess the progress of cancer over the course of 1 year, the American Cancer
Society provide estimates about the 5-year survival rates for people at
different stages of breast cancer.
The 5-year survival rate
refers to the number of people who will live for 5 years after finding out that
they have breast cancer:

  • close to 100 percent for
    stages 0 and 1
  • 93 percent for stage 2
  • 72 percent for stage 3
  • 22 percent for stage 4
These figures are population
estimates. Each person’s individual survival rate varies depending on a wide
range of factors.

Personal factors

Growth or spread within a year
will often depend on personal factors, including:

  • age at diagnosis
  • hormone status, such as pre-
    or postmenopause
  • family history of breast
  • exposure to alcohol,
    cigarettes, or pollution
  • previous history of cancer
Response to treatment

A doctor may also take how a
person responds to previous or current treatment into account when working out
the likely change or progression of cancer.

What to know about breast
cancer growth

Breast cancer occurs when
normal cells mutate and multiply faster than usual. One cell divides to become
two cells, then each of those cells divides to become four cells, and so on.
The uncontrolled multiplication of cancer cells creates tumors within the
breast tissue.
The speed at which a cancer
progresses depends on the growth rate of the cancer cells. It is hard to
estimate cancer growth because not all cancer cells multiply and divide at the
same speed.
In most cases, breast cancer
initially develops in either the milk ducts or the lobules, which are the
glands that produce milk, before expanding into the breast tissue.
Breast cancer that develops in
ducts or lobules can spread to the connective tissue. From there, it can spread
to the surrounding lymph nodes.
Once in the lymph nodes, the
cancer cells can enter the lymphatic system or the bloodstream, where they can
move to other areas of the body.
One recent study looked at the
growth rate of invasive breast cancer tumors. The researchers reported that
certain types of breast cancer, such as triple-negative breast cancer and
HER2-positive breast cancer, grew at fast rates.


People with breast cancer may
experience a range of symptoms, but not all people will experience the same
symptoms. Also, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC),
some people with breast cancer experience no symptoms at all.
Some signs and symptoms of
breast cancer include:

  • a lump or mass in the breast
  • pain, swelling, or redness on
    any part of the breast
  • dimpling of the skin covering
    the breast
  • unusual nipple discharge
  • flaking skin on or near the
  • change in the shape or size of
    the breast

Diagnosing breast cancer
begins with screening for early signs. Procedures may include breast
examinations and mammograms.
If a healthcare provider finds
early signs of breast cancer or highly suspects that a person may have breast
cancer, they will likely order additional tests. These may include:

  • A breast examination. A doctor
    will feel the breast tissue for lumps or any unusual structures in the breast.
    People can also perform their own breast exams at home.
  • Mammography. A mammogram
    involves taking an X-ray image of the breast and examining the image for any
    early signs of breast cancer.
  • Ultrasound. A doctor may use a
    handheld machine called a sonogram to create images of the inside of the
  • MRI. An MRI scan uses strong
    magnetic fields and radio waves to generate images of the inside of the breast.
  • A biopsy. This is a procedure
    that involves removing a sample of tissue from the breast for further

Breast cancer treatment plans
depend on the type and stage of the cancer, as well as a person’s overall
health status and their personal preferences.
Treatments for breast cancer
are either local or systemic.

Local treatments

These aim to remove or destroy
cancer in a particular area of the body. Local treatments aim to destroy or
remove as many cancer cells as possible without damaging healthy tissue.
Examples of local treatments
for breast cancer include:

  • surgical procedures, such as
    lumpectomy or mastectomy
  • radiation therapy
Systemic treatments

These can effectively destroy
cancer throughout the body. However, systemic treatments can negatively affect
healthy cells and cause uncomfortable side effects.
Examples of systemic
treatments include:

  • chemotherapy
  • hormonal therapy
  • targeted therapy


Factors such as age, cancer
status, and a person’s overall health all affect how quickly cancer spreads.
Breast cancer detected at
early stages (0–1) is very treatable. At later stages, breast cancer treatment
is more aggressive, as it aims to destroy the cancer and prevent further growth
to reduce the risk of recurrence.
Stage 4 breast cancer is not
curable, and treatment aims to shrink the cancer when possible and prevent it
from growing or spreading any farther.
While a person with stage 4
cancer may never be cancer-free, controlling the cancer is still considered a
positive outcome in this situation.

Kayode Ojo
Kayode Emmanuel Ojo is the Co-Founder and Managing Director at SHEFFA Limited. He is presently studying Computer Science at the National Open University, Victoria Island, Lagos.