Katherine O’Brien explains everything so well in this piece about metastatic breast cancer.. Read the whole thing… It’s brilliant! Thank you Katherine!


Reblogged from I HATE BREAST CANCER.

What have we learned about Metastatic Breast Cancer, Charlie Brown?

Did-You-Know-Logo-SmallI am coming up on my fifth year of living with metastatic breast cancer. I am fortunate–I started with a low volume of bone mets and five years later my disease has remained fairly indolent. Not everyone is so lucky–and believe me, it is only luck. It isn’t like I tried harder or did anything special–I was just “lucky” enough to have a subtype of breast cancer (ER/PR+; HER2-) and bone-only disease that has been fairly low key. I try not to take this for granted.

As I think back to what I knew about breast cancer in 2009, I am embarrassed. I really didn’t know anything. I remember puzzling out the facts of my case–as though I was in high school muddling through my Spanish homework–constantly stopping to look up words  and rereading everything. N0w I like to think I have a basic fluency in breast cancer, but I also realize there is so much I don’t know.

When I was first diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer, I wanted set the world on fire. I think I have calmed down a little bit. I hope I have become more focused.

Prior to my own diagnosis, I thought of breast cancer as one disease. I didn’t realize breast cancer has three main subtypes:

  • ER/PR+; HER2- (accounts for 65% of breast cancer cases)
  • ER/PR+; HER2+ (accounts for 20%  of breast cancer cases)
  • ER/PR-; HER2-. (accounts for 15%  of breast cancer cases)

Inflammatory breast cancer, the kind my mom had, isn’t a breast cancer subtype, but refers to an unusual presentation–there’s no lump, the disease is generally found at Stage 3 or Stage 4.

I knew that breast cancer had stages and that Stage 4 wasn’t good. I didn’t realize that no one dies from early stage breast cancer–but that 20 to 30 percent of those with early stage breast cancer will go on to have a metastatic recurrence.

I did not know that a de novo presentation–someone who is metastatic from first diagnosis, is the exception rather than the rule. About 90% of those with metastatic breast cancer were previously treated for breast cancer; only 10% of us are metastatic from the start.

I did not realize that our US cancer registry does NOT track breast cancer recurrence–even though that is how most people join the metastatic breast cancer ranks. The NCI and SEER databases record only incidence, initial treatment and mortality data.  What happens in between — in terms of recurrence and the exact number of people living with metastatic breast cancer — is undocumented. As Musa Mayer says, ““It is as if these metastatic [people]  are invisible, that they literally don’t count. And when we don’t count people’s needs, we can’t provide or plan for them.”

I did not know breast cancer could spread to your bones, liver, lung or brains. I knew it was bad if it spread beyond your lymph nodes.

I did not know that having the “worst” kind of breast cancer doesn’t necessarily mean you will have chemo right away. I assumed ALL cancer patients had chemo.  In my case, I will not have chemo until all of  the less toxic options have been tried first. This both because of my subtype ER/PR+; HER2- and because my cancer remains under good control. Someone with triple negative breast cancer can’t use  the anti-hormonal drugs (Tamoxfin; Femara, etc) that I do–their cancer would not respond.

I did not know having metastatic breast cancer means you are a patient for life. Or that the average patient may receive eight or 10 different treatment regimens in sequence. When one drug fails, you move on to the next one. Most people with MBC see their oncologist every month. If  the cancer is in good control, these appointments might be less frequent. But for most it is at least a monthly visit.

I did not know every three or four months I would have scans to see how if my treatment was working. This is anxiety provoking and hard to understand if you have never experienced it.

I didn’t know my scan results could be categorized as No Evidence of Disease (NED), Stable (nothing got bigger or smaller, everything stayed the same); or Progression. I have never been NED but I have been stable, which is good, too.

I did not know that in some cases, people can live with metastatic breast cancer for a long time. I assumed everyone with metastatic breast cancer immediately got really sick and soon succumbed to the disease. While that does happen to some people, it is not universally true. Prognosis depends on many factors, including disease subtype and tempo.

I knew that not having children increases one’s risk for breast cancer, probably because of the unopposed flow of estrogen. I didn’t realize HAVING children increases a woman’s risk for breast cancer for about 10 years after giving birth. I would be willing to bet many women’s doctors either don’t know this or assume that this is a rare occurrence.

I assumed that being diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer at age 43 put me on the younger end of the MBC spectrum. I have sadly discovered this is not the case. I have met women in their 20s with metastatic breast cancer. While it is true that breast cancer is a disease of aging, I think members of the general public would be shocked to hear from some of these young people. Anecdotally, my experience is that there quite a few young women with MBC–too many, in any case.

I did not know that although breast cancer is diagnosed in far more white women, black women are far more likely to die of the disease.

I knew that men could get breast cancer but I  assumed this hardly ever happened. I have met (in person and online) at least five men with metastatic breast cancer. I am pretty sure these men and their families take scant comfort in the “rare” categorization.

I assumed that if one needed financial aid, one could merely call upon one the well-known cancer associations or national breast cancer groups. (Let me stress I am fortunate that I have not had to seek financial aid, but I know many who have.) I have learned that few national groups disburse funds. Typically one has to get help  from a local chapter or affiliate or community group and once those funds are gone for the year that’s it. I have learned most aid is fairly modest–getting help will require applying to many different sources.

I did not realize how poorly funded ALL metastatic cancer research is.

I did not know that a  drug that PREVENTS metastasis may not SHRINK a large, refractory tumor. It has a different mechanism of action that is NOT picked up by the clinical trial system. I did not realize some of our best metastatic researchers are advocating for a new approach to clinical trials.

I did not realize that most Breast Cancer Awareness Month coverage focuses almost exclusively on those with early stage disease. People are either afraid or our reality or prefer to ignore it in favor of  “feel-good” stories. Of course, we’ve also seen the other extreme–someone assuming ALL people living with MBC are on their deathbeds, which isn’t necessarily true either.

I did not know the  incidence of stage IV breast cancer—the cancer that is lethal—has stayed about the same; screening and improved treatment has not changed this.

I did not know breast cancer kills 40,000 annually in the US and half a million worldwide. Breast cancer remains the second leading cause of cancer death for women in the US, and it is the leading cause of cancer death for women globally.

Most of all, I did not know that there was so much that I did not know!


One thought on “What have we learned about Metastatic Breast Cancer, Charlie Brown?

  1. oh, Katherine,

    some of what you did not know, and neither did I, since being dx’d with ST IV met BC is just so glaringly horrendous, e.g, our US cancer registry does not track BC recurrences; and that the NCI and SEER databases do not document recurrence and the exact number of people living with metastatic breast cancer. and the other women who are at risk for BC – those who give birth, and those that do not have babies. my mind is boggled at the implications of these facts, and they make me so very angry wondering what it will take to effect change. thank you for this post, even though as I read them my eyes were filled with impotent tears.

    much love and light,

    Karen xoxo de novo presentation ST IV metastatic Breast Cancer

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