Metastatic breast cancer is when cancer makes its way through the blood stream or lymphatic system from the breast to distant organs in a woman’s body such as the brain, liver, lungs or in the bones. Under a microscope, the cancer in the new location will look similar to the original cancer in the breast, and it is still treated as breast cancer. Metastatic disease also is referred to as stage-four or advanced breast cancer.
Fortunately today, due to heightened awareness, regular screenings and self-exams, the majority of women diagnosed with breast cancer in the early stages are cured. A small number of women (5 to 9 percent) are diagnosed with advanced disease at the time of their initial breast cancer diagnosis. There are instances, however, when breast cancer returns in another location; this can be months or many years later. Symptoms of recurrence may include bone or joint pain, a cough that won’t go away, pain or weakness, changes in bowel and bladder function, loss of appetite or weight loss.
Different kinds of tests can confirm whether the breast cancer has spread. These tests also will guide the treatment options that women and their oncologists discuss and agree upon. At this time, metastatic disease cannot be cured, but new treatments are prolonging lives far longer than any time in the past. The goal of treatment at this advanced stage is to keep the cancer under control for as long as possible, while maintaining the best quality of life for the woman.
Treatment options include chemotherapy, usually given directly into the blood to reach the cancer cells; hormonal therapy intended to slow or stop the growth of certain types of breast cancer cells; and targeted therapy, which attacks specific proteins or genes on the cancer cells which inhibit those cells ability to grow. Radiation therapy may be used to control the spreading of cancer. There also are many complementary medicine therapies such as acupuncture, massage, yoga and meditation, which may provide comfort and relief. These various therapies often are used in combination for the best effect.
Clinical trials and research studies of new therapies make this an especially promising time for women with advanced breast cancer. There are an estimated 155,000 women living with metastatic breast cancer in the U.S. – they are in the workplace, at the grocery store, carpooling, traveling and living each day as a gift. They are experiencing new challenges and opportunities. They are learning to live with uncertainty; coping with a treatment regimen and its side effects; managing pain and fear; acknowledging not only their own emotions but those of loved ones; being able to receive help and love; and looking to end-of-life decisions while living gratefully in the moment.