In a culture focused on survivorship, those with metastatic breast cancer who will be in treatment for the rest of their lives can feel isolated and misunderstood
If you have been told that you have metastatic breast cancer, this means that the cancer has advanced to what is known as Stage 4 cancer. Stage 4 breast cancer refers to cancer that has spread beyond the breast into other areas of the body, most often the bones, lungs, liver, or less commonly, brain.
Metastatic breast cancer is also called secondary breast cancer or advanced breast cancer. There are many words used but they actually mean the same thing.
People with metastatic breast cancer have often said others around them don't 'get' mets. Along with the diagnosis, they have had to deal with many misconceptions about their disease. People might say ' oh you have liver cancer? How could that happen? Doesn't it go to the other breast first?' This can be hard to deal with and sometimes a support group of others who are in a similar situation as you might help. The BCNA Online Network is an online support group for Australians dealing with breast cancer.
Although metastatic breast cancer has spread to another part of the body, it is considered and treated as breast cancer. For example, breast cancer that has spread to the bones is still breast cancer (not bone cancer) and is treated with breast cancer drugs rather than treatments for cancer that began in the bones.
Sometimes people are found to have metastatic breast cancer at their first diagnosis of breast cancer. This is called 'de novo' metastatic breast cancer. It is more common for metastatic breast cancer to occur months or years (sometimes more than 20 years) after a person has completed treatment for early breast cancer.
When metastases is present, we will arrange for tests to determine which organs are involved and the hormone receptor status and HER2 status of the tumour.
Can metastatic breast cancer be cured?
Stage 4 breast cancer can be treated, but it cannot be cured. Treatment aims to control the cancer, relieve any symptoms, and maintain health, wellbeing and a good quality of life for as long as possible.
Treatment for metastatic breast cancer
While metastatic breast cancer may not go away completely, treatment may control it for a number of years. If one treatment stops working, there is often another you can try. The cancer can be active sometimes and go into remission at other times. Many different treatments - alone, in combination, or in sequence - are often used.
Treatment options can include surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, hormonal therapy or targeted therapy, depending on the location and subtype of cancer. If the cancer is hormone-receptor positive, the first treatment we recommend is often hormone therapy. If the cancer is HER2-positive, we may prescribe anti-HER2 drugs such as pertuzumab or trastuzumab. We may also discuss the availability of clinical trials if there is one you are eligible for.
How long do people live with metastatic breast cancer?
When you are diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer, it is natural to wonder how long you have to live. This is difficult to answer because no two people and no two cancers are the same. A number of factors will affect how long you live, including the type of breast cancer you have, the site of metastases, response to treatment and the presence of other health issues not related to cancer. As treatments improve, more and more people are living longer after a diagnosis of metastatic breast cancer.
Living with metastatic breast cancer
Being diagnosed with breast cancer can be overwhelming. You may feel angry, scared, stressed, outraged and depressed. You might question the treatments you had or you might be mad at your doctor or at yourself for not being able to beat the disease. There is no right or wrong way to come to terms with the diagnosis. You need to do and feel what is best for you and your situation.
It is really confronting being told that you have a disease that is controllable but not curable and knowing that you now will be on some form of treatment for always. The hardest part of the situation are the feelings of uncertainty and loss of control. It is helpful to take all the time you need to ask questions, gather information and make decisions about your treatment. For a guide on what questions to ask your cancer specialist, read this article.
We will have detailed discussions with you about your treatment options and help you to gain some clarity and control of your situation. We will focus on empowering you to make the decisions that are right for you and to live your life as well as possible, including taking care of yourself, working after your diagnosis, facing your fears, getting emotional support and more.
There is still HOPE with metastatic breast cancer
Keep in mind that there is still HOPE with metastatic disease. Many people continue to live long, productive lives with Stage 4 breast cancer. There are many treatment options and new medicines are being studied every day. More and more people are living life to the fullest while being treated for metastatic breast cancer.
If you have any questions or want to make an appointment, email us or give us a call on (07)3859 0690.