An estimated 268,600 women were diagnosed with invasive breast cancer in the past year. Thanks to better screening, most will be diagnosed early in their disease. However, about 6% are diagnosed with metastatic disease when the cancer has already spread to other sites. In addition, many women learn that the cancer they believed they had hit has returned. In fact, of the 150,000 women living with metastatic disease in the United States today, three in four were initially diagnosed with early-stage disease.
The amazing thing is how long these women live. In 2004, fewer than one in five women (18%) diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer (MBC) were still alive after five years; by 2012 this number had almost doubled to 34%.
This increase is likely due to the number of new therapies for late-stage breast cancer that are now available. There are a variety of targeted therapies that treat four types of metastatic breast cancer, including cancers positive for hormone receptors and protein receptors, and triple negative breast cancer.
This means that a diagnosis of MBC is no longer a death sentence. Instead, it is now being treated as a chronic disease – one that cannot be cured, but will hopefully enable a quality life for years.
The question is: how do you live with an incurable disease?
Become an Expert. This means that you know the specifics of your type of breast cancer, what symptoms to look out for, and how your medications work. It also means asking questions every time you visit the health care provider, reading trusted sources about your illness, and following the news of cancer treatment breakthroughs.
Track clinical trials. Don’t wait for your doctor to suggest a try. Instead, stay tuned by checking in at clinicaltrials.gov. There are nearly 200 active clinical trials testing new treatments in women with metastatic breast cancer, and it’s easy to set up a search for any trials you might qualify for.
Live in the present. Learning to live in the moment may sound like a cliché, but it’s a good strategy for dealing with a chronic illness. When you live with an incurable disease, you know better than anyone how life can blind you.
Find support. Numerous studies show that women with breast cancer who have strong support systems and are socially connected through their work, community or religion live longer with a better quality of life than women who do not have such support.
Meet other women like you. Ask your doctor to put you in touch with other women with MBC or contact us online. A good resource is the Metastatic Breast Cancer Network, which lists support groups and hotlines.
Find stories and tell your own. Hundreds of thousands of women live with MBC today. You can read some of their stories here. Consider telling your own story publicly, to friends and / or family, or to yourself in your journal.
Most of all, remember that you are strong and resilient. And while this may be difficult, you can do difficult things.
This resource was produced with the assistance of Daiichi Sankyo, Merck, Sanofi Genzyme, and Genentech, a member of the Roche Group.