Not long ago, a diagnosis of metastatic breast cancer, meaning the disease has spread well beyond the breast into places like the bones, lungs, or liver, meant it was time to get your affairs in order. In the 1970s, only 10% of women were still alive five years after a diagnosis of metastatic breast cancer, according to a comprehensive review by the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, published in January 2004.
Breast cancer is a complex disease that’s different for every woman. Before you start a treatment, your doctor will want to know the size of the tumor and how far it has spread in your body, called the stage of the cancer. There are five basic stages, 0 through IV, and a number of sub-stages.
Staging is a way for doctors to describe your condition. It doesn't tell the whole story, though. Your doctor will think about many things before she recommends treatments for you, including:
Today, say the MD Anderson researchers, as many as 40% of women with recurrent or metastatic breast cancer survive at least five years. "More and more, both doctors and patients approach it as a chronic condition," says Eric Winer, MD, director of the Breast Program at Boston's Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. "We can't cure it, but we can manage it for many years."
Managing metastatic breast cancer as a chronic condition isn't the same as managing a disease like diabetes. "Diabetes, ultimately, can shorten one's life, but that's over the horizon of a few decades," Winer says.
"With breast cancer metastases, the majority of women know that this is an illness that's ultimately going to take their life. That may not be in a year or two or three, but it certainly tends to be in less than a decade."
However, enormous treatment improvements do mean that thousands of women are living longer and better lives even though they have metastatic breast cancer.
Treatments for Breast Cancer that Has Spread
Treatments for metastatic and earlier-stage breast cancer are very different. For earlier-stage breast cancer -- particularly for women who are relatively young and healthy -- doctors will often advise a very aggressive, rigorous course of treatment aimed at getting rid of the cancer completely. The side effects can be difficult, but there's a finish line in sight: initial breast cancer treatment usually lasts no more than six to nine months.
With metastatic cancer, some form of treatment will be a fact of life more or less from now on. This means the treatment philosophy changes. "We're looking to gain maximal control of the tumor at the lowest possible cost in terms of toxicity," says Clifford Hudis, MD, chief of the Breast Cancer Medicine Service at New York's Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center.