October, as most people know, is widely recognized as breast cancer awareness month. As the official breast cancer awareness month color, we see pink nearly everywhere we go this month to help raise awareness for this disease, which is diagnosed in about 1 in 8 women and about 1 in 1,000 men every year in the United States. However, what a lot of people may not know is that October 13 was Metastatic Breast Cancer Awareness Day. About 155,000 people are currently estimated to be living with metastatic or stage 4 breast cancer, meaning the cancer has spread to other parts of the body.
Earlier this month, during an episode of Frankly Speaking About Cancer, Kim Thiboldeaux, President and CEO of the Cancer Support Community, talked with Shirley Mertz, Board President of the Metastatic Breast Cancer Network (MBCN), Stacy Lewis, Chief Program Officer and Deputy Chief Executive of the Young Survival Coalition and Khadijah Carter, who was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer in 2010 and has used her story to inspire others.
What is metastatic breast cancer?
Shirley: Metastatic breast cancer means that cells, cancer cells, in the breast have travelled to other parts of the body, usually the bone lungs, liver or brain. The cells get to other parts of the body by way of our blood stream or lymph nodes. We don’t know exactly why, but it does happen. This disease is different than early stage disease; early stage disease is confined to the breast. Our challenge for those of us who live with metastatic breast cancer is that our disease is incurable. People die from metastatic breast cancer. Unlike early stage breast cancer, where the treatment aim is to cure the person of their disease. Right now there is no cure for metastatic breast cancer. The goal is to try to extend our life as long as possible, while helping us live the highest quality of life that we can.
How is metastatic breast cancer treated versus early stages of breast cancer?
Shirley: During the month of October, many people get the idea that breast cancer is one disease. It’s really many diseases, both at the early stage and at the metastatic or advanced stage. Because there are different subtypes of metastatic breast cancer, there are different treatments. The most common thing I can say that makes them all similar is that they are all aimed at what is making the breast cancer grow. Different subtypes receive different treatments. For metastatic breast cancer patients, they are in constant treatment. For example in my case, I have been in treatment for eleven years. There is just no end because we don’t know how to cure it.
How is metastatic breast cancer diagnosed?
Khadijah: Metastatic disease is usually diagnosed when breast cancer has reoccurred months or years after treatment for early stage breast cancer. Approximately, six to ten percent of people are initially diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer. If a woman exhibits some symptoms after she has been treated with early stage breast cancer–for me I had a persistent cough. I went to my doctor and they conducted a chest x-ray, and they saw multiple tumors and a blood clot. That’s when I had a biopsy and when he determined that I had metastatic disease at that point.
Are there any risk factors for this diagnosis?
Stacy: I think what we know from having both Shirley and Khadijah as part of this great call is that it can, unfortunately, happen at any age. While less young women are diagnosed with breast cancer as well as metastatic breast cancer, the reality is that, unfortunately, younger women are dying at an increased rate when compared to the general breast cancer population. In brief, when you look at what they call the five-year survival rate, the general breast cancer population is doing slightly better than the population of young women diagnosed with breast cancer. Age is not a barrier, and too many women are being diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer.
Find the full list of episodes on our website at www.cancersupportcommunity.org . If you or someone you love is impacted by this diagnosis and is in need of support or resources call the Cancer Support Helpline at 1-888-793-9355, available Monday-Friday, 9 a.m.-8 p.m.
About Young Survival Coalition
Young Survival Coalition (YSC) is a global organization dedicated to the issues facing young women who have been diagnosed with breast cancer. YSC provides information, education and resources for women, from diagnosis to long-term survivorship. YSC allows those impacted by any stage of breast cancer to connect to others through online community boards, in-person support groups or one-on-one peer support.
About Metastatic Breast Cancer Network
Metastatic Breast Cancer Network (MBCN) is a national patient-led advocacy organization dedicated to the unique concerns of the women and men living with metastatic breast cancer. The mission of MBCN is to empower people living with this disease to be their own best advocate by providing education and information on treatments and ways to cope with metastatic breast cancer—physically, socially and emotionally.