Last year, an estimated 268,600 women were diagnosed with invasive breast cancer. Thanks to better screening, most are 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 thought they'd beaten has returned. In fact, of the 150,000 women living in the United States today with metastatic disease, three out of four were initially diagnosed with early stage disease.
The amazing thing is how long these women are living. In 2004, less than one out of five women (18%) diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer (MBC) were still alive after five years; by 2012, that figure had nearly doubled to 34%.
This increase can likely be attributed 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 cancers, including cancers that are positive for hormone receptors and protein receptors, as well triple negative breast cancer.
This means a diagnosis of MBC is no longer a death sentence. Instead, it's now being treated as a chronic disease — one that can't be cured but can be managed to hopefully provide years of high-quality life.
The question is: How do you live with an incurable disease?
Become an expert. That means learning the specifics of your type of breast cancer, which symptoms to watch for, and how your medications work. It also means asking questions at every healthcare visit, reading reliable sources about your disease, and following the news about breakthroughs in cancer treatments.
Track clinical trials. Don't wait for your doctor to suggest a trial for you. Instead, keep up with what's going on 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 trials you may qualify for.
Live in the now. Learning to live in the moment might sound cliché, but it's a good strategy when dealing with a chronic illness. If you're living with an incurable disease, you know better than anyone how life can blindside you.
Find support. Numerous studies find that women with breast cancer who have strong support systems and those who are socially connected through their jobs, community or religion live longer with better quality of life than women who don't have such support.
Meet other women like you. Ask your doctor to connect you with other women with MBC, or reach out 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 today are living with MBC. You can read some of their stories here. Consider telling your own story, whether publicly, to friends and/or family, or to yourself in your journal.
Above all, remember that you are strong and resilient. And, although this may be hard, you can do hard things.
This resource was created with support from Daiichi Sankyo, Merck, Sanofi Genzyme and Genentech, a member of the Roche Group.