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Barbara Jacoby's Huffington Post piece, "How do breast cancer and metastatic breast cancer differ?" emphasizes the need for more treatment options for patients with advanced breast cancer.
“When breast cancer moves to the brain or bones or lungs or liver, the conception is that you now have brain cancer or bone cancer or lung cancer or liver cancer,” writes Barbara Jacoby in her Huffington Post piece, “How do breast cancer and metastatic breast cancer differ?”
October is National Breast Cancer Awareness month, which aims to increase attention and awareness regarding breast cancer. According to the World Health Organization, “When breast cancer is detected early, and if adequate diagnosis and treatment are available, there is a good change that breast cancer can be cured.”
However, Jacoby brings attention to the fact that patients with metastatic breast cancer feel like “the forgotten ones” that “have not been understood and/or heard by the general population.” In her essay, she explains how metastatic breast cancer differs from early breast cancer.
Patients with early breast cancer have cancer that stays in the breast or moves to the underarm lymph nodes.
Locally advanced disease is breast cancer that spreads to the chest wall, breast skin or other lymph nodes, like the ones in the breast.
A patient has advanced or metastatic (stage IV) breast cancer when his/her cancer spreads beyond the breast and nearby lymph nodes in the armpit to other organs, such as the lungs, liver, bones, or brain.
Some terms used when talking about metastatic breast cancer can be confusing. One common misunderstanding is how to talk about breast cancer after it has spread to other organs. Jacoby points this out in her article, explaining that even when breast cancer spreads to the lungs, liver, or brain, it is still breast cancer, or as she notes, “A cancer is identified by its origin and not by a location to which it has advanced.”
Media reports sometime use the terms “metastasis” and “metastatic cancer” to describe breast cancer that has spread to the lymph nodes. But it is important to remember that metastatic breast cancer has moved beyond the breast and lymph nodes, traveled through the blood stream and/or the lymphatic system to other organs where it continues to grow. Patients who have breast cancer that has progressed to the lymph nodes have cancer that has spread, but it is not metastatic breast cancer.
Although identifying and treating cancer at its earliest stages often prevents it from spreading to other parts of the body, early detection doesn’t guarantee that metastasis won’t occur, or that it hasn’t already occurred at the time of diagnosis. Jacoby notes that some patients are initially diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer.
Finally, Jacoby reminds the reader that not all breast cancers are alike. Just as they differ based on subtype, metastatic breast cancer is different than early breast cancer.
Patients’ response to treatment is extremely variable, according to Jacoby. A patient may respond well to a drug for a month, when it then stops working; another patient may never show a positive response to the same drug. Some patients may have minimal side effects while taking a drug while others may have an extremely difficult time with the same drug.
We need good treatment options for all metastatic breast cancer patients; this can only become a reality with increased funding for research that targets metastatic cancer, as well as targeted therapy based on the type of breast cancer and presence or absence of inherited mutations in genes that increase cancer risk.
Jacoby’s article spotlights metastatic breast cancer, primarily for the general public. Another effort with similar focus is The Metastatic Breast Cancer Alliance (MBCA). This coalition of nonprofits, includes FORCE, our XRAYS partners (Living Beyond Breast Cancer, Tigerlily, Triple Step Toward the Cure, and the Young Survival Coalition), and industry partners who formed in 2013 to identify and address issues facing people with metastatic breast cancer. In 2014, MBCA published a landscape analysis identifying the need for more funds to be directed to metastatic breast cancer research.
The MBCA analysis also identified gaps in the understanding of the epidemiology of metastatic breast cancer, including:
The landscape analysis also looked at the quality of life for women and men with metastatic breast cancer, availability of support services, and the state of public awareness of metastatic breast cancer.
FORCE highlights clinical trials of interest to people facing hereditary cancer. Our featured research page and our clinical trial search tool include information on a number of ongoing clinical trials that are recruiting women and men with metastatic breast cancer and BRCA mutations.
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Jacoby, B, “How Do Breast Cancer and Metastatic Breast Cancer Differ?”, Huffington Post, August 29, 2016
Metastatic Breast Cancer Alliance “Changing the Landscape for People Living with Metastatic Breast Cancer,” October 2014
FORCE Information: Featured Research
Joining FORCEs Newsletter: Conference Recap: Hereditary Metastatic Breast Cancer Update