This section explains the different drugs that are available to fight secondary breast cancer.

There are three main types of anticancer drug that you might receive as part of your treatment. These are:

Which of these treatments is best for you will depend on the characteristics of your cancer cells and which treatments you have had before (if any).

Cancers with receptors for oestrogen (also known as hormone positive or ER+ cancers) are often treated first with a hormone therapy.

Cancers that have a lot of receptors for a molecule called HER2 can be treated with a biological therapy called trastuzumab (Herceptin).

Your oncologist will recommend the anticancer treatments for you that are most likely to:

  • Stop your cancer growing
  • Relieve your symptoms
  • Improve your quality of life
  • Extend your life
  • Have fewest side effects, or have more manageable side effects

Your oncologist will discuss potential treatment options with you. They will explain the risks and benefits of each drug, so you can plan your treatment together. It is common to have a sequence of different treatments for secondary breast cancer.

You will receive each drug for as long as it works well. At the point when your cancer begins to grow again despite treatment, your oncologist will recommend swapping to a different drug.

Click on the type of breast cancer you have in the tabs below to see a summary of the anticancer drugs that might be suitable for you.

If you don’t know which type of breast cancer you have, you can check this with your oncologist, clinical nurse specialist or another member of your treatment team. You can also browse through, but be aware that not all treatments may be suitable for you.

My cancer is:

Treatments for hormone-positive cancer

  • Hormone-positive (or hormone-receptor positive) cancers are encouraged to grow by natural hormones in your body. Hormone therapies aim to stop the cancer growing.
  • Many people with hormone-positive (ER+) secondary breast cancer are treated with a hormone therapy first. This is because hormone therapies tend to work well but have fewer side effects. 
  • Examples of hormone therapies are a type of drug called an aromatase inhibitor or a drug called tamoxifen.
  • Some women also have treatment to stop their ovaries producing hormones – this is called ovarian suppression.
  • If your cancer is making you extremely unwell and you need a treatment that will act especially quickly, your oncologist may recommend you have chemotherapy first.
  • If your cancer continues to grow while you’re taking a hormone therapy, you may be offered a treatment called everolimus (Afinitor) to help your hormone therapy continue to work. Fulvestrant (Faslodex) can also be used to treat cancers which continue to grow on hormone therapy. Fulvestrant (Faslodex) is currently only available as standard on the NHS in Scotland, but your oncologist may be able to request a prescription for you. See our section on access to anticancer drugs for more information.
  • If your cancer continues to grow while you’re taking a hormone therapy, you may be offered a treatment called everolimus (Afinitor) to help your hormone therapy continue to work. Fulvestrant (Faslodex) can also be used to treat cancers which continue to grow on hormone therapy. Fulvestrant (Faslodex) is currently only available as standard on the NHS in Scotland, but your oncologist may be able to request a prescription for you. See our section on access to anticancer drugs for more information.
  • If your cancer continues to grow while you’re taking a hormone therapy, you may be offered a treatment called everolimus (Afinitor) to help your hormone therapy continue to work. This is only available as standard on the NHS in England, Wales, and Scotland. Fulvestrant (Faslodex) can also be used to treat cancers which continue to grow on hormone therapy, but it is currently only available as standard on the NHS in Scotland. For information on how your oncologist may be able to request a prescription of these drugs for you, see our section on access to anticancer drugs for more information.
  • If your cancer continues to grow while you’re taking a hormone therapy, you may be offered a treatment called everolimus (Afinitor) to help your hormone therapy continue to work. Fulvestrant (Faslodex) can also be used to treat cancers which continue to grow on hormone therapy.
  • If in the future, your cancer begins to grow despite your treatment, your oncologist will recommend trying a different hormone therapy or chemotherapy.
  • You might also be invited to take part in a clinical trial of a new treatment.

Treatments for HER2+ cancer

To begin, you’re likely to be offered the biological therapy trastuzumab (Herceptin). This works by targeting the HER2 receptors of your cancer cells. It is common for this to be given alongside a chemotherapy drug.

Treatments for both hormone positive and HER positive

  • To begin, you’re likely to be offered a biological therapy called trastuzumab, which targets the HER2 receptors on your cancer cells. This is usually used alongside chemotherapy.
  • Other treatments you may be offered include chemotherapy or hormone therapy (such as a type of drug called an aromatase inhibitor or a drug called tamoxifen).
  • Some women also have treatment to stop their ovaries producing hormones – this is called ovarian suppression.
  • The order that you receive these drugs in will be tailored to you, and you might be given more than one at a time.
  • You might also be invited to take part in a clinical trial of a new treatment.

Treatments for triple negative breast cancer (ER- and HER2-)

  • If your cancer is triple negative, you’re likely to be offered chemotherapy. It is common for people to begin on a type of chemotherapy called an anthracycline (e.g. doxorubicin or epirubicin) or a taxane (e.g. docetaxel or paclitaxel).
  • If in the future your cancer begins to grow again, there are other chemotherapies you may be offered, including carboplatin, capecitabine, vinorelbine or gemcitabine.
  • Eribulin (Halaven) is another drug sometimes used to treat triple negative breast cancer.
  • Eribulin (Halaven) is another drug sometimes used to treat triple negative breast cancer.
  • Eribulin (Halaven) is another drug sometimes used to treat triple negative breast cancer.
  • Eribulin (Halaven) is another drug sometimes used to treat triple negative breast cancer. Eribulin (Halaven) is currently only available as standard on the NHS in England, Scotland, and Wales, but your oncologist may be able to request a prescription for you. See our section on access to anticancer drugs for more information.
  • You might also be invited to take part in a clinical trial of a new treatment.

Watch Julie share her experience of being on anti-cancer drugs, specifically Kadcyla:

Information StandardInformation last reviewed: January 2017

Next review due: October 2018

Breast Cancer Now's health information is covered by NHS England's Information Standard quality mark. Find out how this resource was developed.