Metastatic breast cancer, or advanced breast cancer, is cancer that has spread from the breast to the lymph nodes or other organs, including bone, brain, lungs, and liver. Most women with this diagnosis have already completed treatment for stage I, II, or III breast cancer. Unlike other forms of cancer, metastatic breast cancer is chronic — men and women with this diagnosis will live with it for the rest of their lives. While in the past, treatment options were few, recent advances in modern medicine have unearthed new therapies that extend the lifespan and improve the quality of life of the patient. These days, doctors focus not only on helping patients battle the disease, but also living with it long term.
When patients first hear a diagnosis of metastatic breast cancer, they often feel overwhelmed and afraid. Questions emerge, like, “Why is this happening to me?” ”Can I afford treatment?” “Am I going to die?” “Will my family be okay?” All of these questions are natural responses to the diagnosis. Every patient deals with a metastatic breast cancer diagnosis in his or her own way. These are just a few things the AiRS Foundation has found to be helpful to those diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer.
Seek relational support.
There is a plethora of support groups for patients with early stage breast cancer, but it’s harder to find support groups for patients with metastatic cancer. As a result, patients with the advanced disease feel isolated in their diagnosis. There are a number of resources that are specifically designed for patients with metastatic breast cancer. These include Metastatic Breast Cancer Network, Living Beyond Breast Cancer, AdvancedBC.org, and Advanced Breast Cancer Community, among others. Patients may also want to reach out to family and friends who can support them through this disease.
Focus on daily, achievable goals.
It’s easy for patients with advanced breast cancer to focus too much on an unknown future or fret about things they wished had happened in the past. Instead, peace and hope can come from the daily joys of life. Focus on achievable goals, like enjoying a walk in the park with a friend or attending a grandchild’s or child’s soccer game. Take the time to do enjoyable things, like painting, listening to music, or gardening. Focusing on long-term goals can also offer hope and something to look forward to. Perhaps that means seeing the wedding anniversary of a friend or family member. These daily joys offer meaning and hope in the midst of the disease.
Remember: though metastatic breast cancer isn’t curable, it’s treatable.
While metastatic breast cancer isn’t considered curable, it is considered treatable. That means that many women live with metastatic breast cancer for years thanks to advanced therapies. And as treatments for advanced cancer improve, so do the prognosis. Treatments are often designed to control tumor growth, prolong life, and maintain a high quality of life so that women with this advanced disease can live with it long term.
Remember: every diagnosis is different.
Every person’s cancer diagnosis differs. That means your treatment will be specific to your diagnosis — and so will your prognosis. The survival rate for women with metastatic breast cancer is highly variable. Most live with metastatic breast cancer for around two or three years. Others, however, live ten or twenty years. Many live more than five, ten, or twenty years longer than their prognosis. Since the average survival rate does not predict how long any one person may live, patients can remain realistically hopeful, especially as new treatments are made available every day.
Allow yourself to have good days — and bad.
A lot of the language around breast cancer involves “beating cancer” or “surviving.” For patients with metastatic breast cancer, however, this language can often feel discouraging because their type of cancer is a lifelong disease. When patients feel discouraged, confused, or scared, that’s okay. Patients can press into that pain, perhaps expressing it to close friends, family members, or a therapist, without having to “cheer themselves up.” At the same time, there will still be beautiful, joy-filled days for metastatic cancer patients. Men and women with this diagnosis can remain hopeful for a cure, while enjoying all the good things in their lives.
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