As a child in the 1970s, my best friend’s mother, Ginger *, was diagnosed with breast cancer. At the time, treatment was typically radical mastectomy followed by chemotherapy and radiation therapy. My friend’s mother survived her treatment, but the cancer came back and metastasized (ie, spread) to her lungs.
In the 1980s and 1990s, research continued, new treatments became available, and Ginger could see her three amazing daughters graduate from high school and college. He was also there to plan their weddings and to welcome five beautiful grandchildren into this world. She shaped me and all of Michele’s friends and showed us how wonderful women can be. Ginger was my hero, I really loved and adored her and I still hold her dear. She was also a nurse – and she inspired me to become one too.
That experience taught me something, both as a woman and as a nurse. Diagnosing terminal cancer is scary and overwhelming, but that doesn’t mean it’s daunting. Although scary and extremely challenging, research and new treatment options offer people with metastatic cancer the opportunity to live longer and more active lives.
Metastatic breast cancer
Metastatic breast cancer (MSC, also known as stage 4) is breast cancer that has spread to another part of the body such as the liver, brain, bones, or lungs. It usually develops months or even years after a person is diagnosed and completed treatment for breast cancer.
About 30% of women diagnosed with early breast cancer will develop metastatic disease, while 6% of women will already have MSC by the time they are first diagnosed. As of 2017, an estimated 168,000 women lived with KMG in the United States alone.
We need to educate women about the symptoms of MBC and make them aware of the importance of early diagnosis. It is important to note that not only women over 40 are at risk for KMG, but younger women too. The symptoms of MBC vary depending on where the cancer has spread.
Bone metastases: Cancer most commonly spreads to the ribs, spine, pelvis, or the long bones of arms and legs and can be accompanied by sudden new sharp pain. The pain can come and go first and then become constant.
Metastasis to the lungs: Symptoms may include shortness of breath, wheezing, coughing (with or without blood and phlegm), and pain. Symptoms may mimic a cold or an upper respiratory infection. However, if they persist for more than a week, see your doctor.
Metastases in the brain: Seizures, headaches, memory problems, changes in mood or personality, speech disorders (and other changes in the senses controlled by the brain), and strokes can all indicate brain metastases.
Metastasis to the liver: Since cancer that spreads to the liver often has no symptoms, it will usually be detected by blood tests. If symptoms are present, they can include fever, weight loss or loss of appetite, gas, tiredness, swelling of the legs, pain in the middle, and a yellowing of the whites of the eyes or skin.
In all cases, if you are a breast cancer survivor and you have any of the symptoms above, or if you feel like something is wrong, you are best tested.
It is important for women to understand that a lot of research is being done and that there are treatment options that have improved and continue to improve survival rates. About a third of women in the United States live at least five years after being diagnosed, and some women can live ten years or even longer after being diagnosed with MBC.
In addition, women with MBC should be aware of ongoing clinical trials of new treatment options. The National Institutes of Health offers a tool at clinicaltrials.gov that allows users to search for research on specific diseases and geographic locations. It is important that women participate in these studies, especially women of skin color and of all ages.
In retrospect, I imagine that for Ginger, the diagnosis of incurable breast cancer must have been really terrifying, especially since there were so few support networks and resources for women. Fortunately, we’ve come a long way in the past 50 years.
Regardless of the type of breast cancer diagnosis you get, in addition to finding the best medical treatment, establishing your plan for living with the disease is important. Contact your doctor with any questions, find support groups, talk to your friends, and take advantage of the many resources available online, including us at HealthyWomen.
Above all, keep hope.
This resource was created with the assistance of Daiichi Sankyo and Sanofi Genzyme.
Susan G. Komen
National Breast Cancer Foundation