Metastatic breast cancer: The other half of the story

An often-forgotten group of women lives each day with a difficult and incurable disease. Metastatic breast cancer (MBC) patients not only endure an ongoing treatment regimen but also carry a profound physical, psychological and emotional burden. Addressing these women’s unmet needs, including by delaying their disease’s progression and improving their quality of life, is of the utmost importance.

Metastatic breast cancer (MBC) is the most advanced stage of breast cancer, diagnosed as stage IV. It occurs when the cancer spreads beyond the breast to other parts of the body. Typically, MBC metastases move from the breast to the bones, liver, brain, or lungs. Each type of metastasis is associated with its own set of symptoms, which substantially impact the patient’s daily life. Bone metastasis, for instance, is the most common cause of cancer pain, while symptoms of a brain metastasis include dizziness and seizures. 

Unfortunately, MBC remains an incurable condition. Moreover, even if a woman is diagnosed with breast cancer at an early stage, she may still develop the metastatic disease. Up to 30 percent of women diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer will eventually develop MBC.

Why is MBC so different from early-stage breast cancer?

“We want to be viewed not just as patients, but as people who want to make the best of their lives.”

Michal, a woman with MBC

Women with MBC face distinct challenges compared to those with early-stage breast cancer (see the section on Breast Cancer), including a need for continuous treatment. Metastatic breast cancer has no cure and the current median survival time – that is, the length of time which half the patients are expected to live - is two to four years.

In addition to possible painful physical symptoms, women with MBC face a huge psychological burden. The emotional toll of feeling their time is limited can be profound, affecting how they feel about themselves, communicate with others, and live their daily lives. While early-stage breast-cancer patients often return to cancer-free lives, women with MBC live with a chronic and devastating condition – yet still want to be known primarily as people, not as patients.

The unmet needs of women with MBC

To help MBC patients live full and active lives, it is vital to develop better treatments to battle the cancer, including investing more into MBC R&D and treatments that can delay the disease’s progression. 

Treating the emotional burden that accompanies MBC is equally important. Large-scale advocacy about breast cancer in general has had tremendously positive results, and the general public is well aware of the disease. But the popular conception of breast cancer, as well as of its treatment and prognosis, typically centers on the disease’s early stage. Many women with MBC feel their stories and struggles do not align with the public perception of breast cancer, leaving them feeling forgotten and invisible.

Now, we need to ensure both the public at large and the breast-cancer community in particular understand the specific challenges faced by women who live with MBC. Raising awareness of this overlooked group of breast-cancer patients, who live daily with a devastating disease, is essential.  The voices and needs of MBC women must be included in the larger breast-cancer conversation. 

For further information and a list of references, please see the downloadable PDF at the top of the page.