Although breast cancer awareness has improved among the general population, fewer people are familiar with the realities of a metastatic breast cancer diagnosis. This advanced stage of breast cancer (also known as stage IV) means that the cancer has spread beyond the breasts to other parts of the body, such as the bones, lungs, or lymph nodes. (Learn more about metastatic breast cancer here.)
With this stage of breast cancer being less commonly diagnosed, especially among first-time breast cancer patients, some misunderstandings about the treatment and prognosis of metastatic breast cancer are inevitable. Clearing up these myths is crucial—especially for the patients themselves.
“It’s important to reassure patients as much as possible and to dispel preconceived notions,” says Amy Tiersten, MD, a breast oncologist at Dubin Breast Center at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City.
Myth: Metastatic breast cancer is a death sentence.
It’s true that breast cancer becomes harder to treat at a more advanced stage, but metastatic breast cancer now has a variety of treatment options that may shrink tumors, reduce cancer growth, and help patients live longer. “Patients are living with the disease, in many cases for a long period of time,” says Dr. Tiersten.
Thanks to improved treatment options, Dr. Tiersten says you can think of metastatic breast cancer more like a chronic disease, like diabetes. It can’t be cured, and it requires ongoing management, testing, and making adjustments to medication regimens.
“It’s not true in every single case, but many patients with metastatic breast cancer can live good quantity and quality of lives,” says Dr. Tiersten. Learn more about treatments for metastatic breast cancer.
Myth: Breast cancer that spreads to the lungs is lung cancer.
Cancer cells are always named after the part of the body where the tumor originated, according to the American Cancer Society. Under a microscope, a cancer cell from lung cancer and breast cancer look structurally different. No matter where the breast cancer cells spread in metastatic breast cancer, they are is still considered to be breast cancer and treated as such.
Cancer cells can metastasize, or spread, by invading nearby cells, traveling through the bloodstream or lymph system, or lodging themselves in blood vessels, according to the National Breast Cancer Foundation. Even if a treatment is working well, it only takes one resistant cancer cell to spread the cancer to a new part of the body.
Myth: Metastatic breast cancer treatment is just like any other breast cancer treatment.
“Unlike treatment for early stage breast cancer where we give a defined length [of] time for treatment, treatment for metastatic breast cancer is an indefinite period of time,” says Dr. Tiersten.
Your doctor will continuously evaluate how well the treatment is working, based on not only the prevention of cancer growth but also your tolerance of side effects. If things are going well, you may stay on that treatment plan indefinitely.
Myth: Metastatic breast cancer can be cured.
New treatment options have helped to change the outlook for many patients with metastatic breast cancer, but there is still technically no cure for metastatic breast cancer. That said, it’s possible to live a life that’s virtually cancer-free for many years. “It’s certainly not unusual in this day and age to have patients get to a point where there’s no evidence of their disease on scans or through bloodwork,” says Dr. Tiersten.
But a tumor-free scan doesn’t mean it’s time to drop your treatment plan. Again, metastatic breast cancer is akin to a chronic disease that requires active maintenance.
“We keep [patients] on whatever treatment is keeping things under control,” says Dr. Tiersten. “A lot of patients can do very well with metastatic disease and live many years. [They can] do normal things, continue to work, go to bar mitzvahs and weddings, and live their lives.”