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Unsung heroes: women living with metastatic breast cancer


Professor Cathy Kelly

Consultant Medical Oncologist

For most women who are diagnosed with breast cancer that involves their breast and lymph nodes, once they are treated, their cancer never returns. Women with metastatic breast cancer are those whose breast cancer has spread to other organs such as bone, liver or lung. Metastatic breast cancer is very treatable but in most cases it is not cured.  In most cases, metastatic breast cancer cannot be cured.

The goal of treatment is to maintain quality and length of life. Life expectancies of between two to four years are often quoted, however some women only live for a number of months while others live for many years. 

Many women with metastatic breast cancer continue to work, raise families, run businesses etc. Often, the people around them have little if any knowledge of their disease. 

Hormone-blocking tablets could treat many women

Oestrogen-driven cancer can be treated with hormone therapies – often for several years before patients may need chemotherapy. 

Women with metastatic HER2-positive breast cancer can be treated with anti-HER2 antibody drugs for many years too. Some of these patients have no evidence of metastatic disease after a few months of treatment. 

About 15% of women have triple negative breast cancer and these women need chemotherapy. But, recent clinical trial results have shown that, in the future, these women may benefit from immunotherapy, which is very exciting. 

Shock, anger, sadness and fear are common responses

Coping with a diagnosis of metastatic breast cancer is hard. A person can feel shock, anger, sadness and fear, and the uncertainty of not knowing what the future holds. 

Some women continue to work for the sake of normality, or because financially they must. Women with children fear the impact their diagnosis will have on them and how they will cope in the future. Without question, all women need support from a multidisciplinary team of specialists and from their family and friends. 

As a society, we need to focus a spotlight on metastatic breast cancer. We need to listen to these women, understand and address their unique needs and allow them to express their fears. We need to fight for the best clinical trials with the most promising drugs for them. 

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