Feeling confused about your breast cancer diagnosis? When it comes to metastatic breast cancer, or what’s also called Stage 4 or ‘advanced breast cancer’, it’s not always easy to understand what’s true and what’s not.
To help debunk some of the mystery, we’ve pulled together the below to help clear up some of the myths, because being told you have metastatic, or Stage 4 cancer is a lot to deal with, let alone trying to understand and navigate what’s fact from fiction amongst all the outdated, anecdotal or unhelpful information that seems to pop up across the internet.
To help you navigate the emotional and medical minefield, here are some of the myths we know to be absolutely untrue about metastatic cancer:
Myth #1: Metastatic Breast Cancer Is Super Rare
Whilst Australia has one of the best cancer survival rates in the world when it comes to breast cancer, it still remains the second leading cause of cancer deaths in Australia, with Cancer Australia stating that approximately 8 women die every day in Australia because of the disease.
Myth #2: You Can’t Treat Metastatic Breast Cancer
Unlike breast cancer that hasn’t spread beyond the breast and lymph nodes, metastatic breast cancer that has spread to other organs isn’t always easy to treat, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t options out there.
There are a number of medications available that can slow or stop the progression of the disease, extending the patient’s life. These treatment options are decided upon in partnership with your medical care team, and are guided by the biology of your tumour, meaning the characteristics of your cancer cells, your age, where in the body your cancer has spread and your symptoms.
Whilst local therapies, such as surgery and radiation are often used, metastatic breast cancer is typically treated with systemic medications, such as hormone therapy, chemotherapy and targeted therapy.
Myth #3: Metastatic Breast Cancer Means I Should Have A Mastectomy
While it’s natural to want to get rid of the cancer in your body, doctors do not believe that the removal of breast tissue in Stage 4 patients adds any benefit or improves effectiveness of other treatments. That being said, each case is treated differently, and it is up to your healthcare team to work with you to decide the best course of action in managing your health journey.
Myth #4: My Cancer Spread Because It Was Never Treated Properly In The First Place
If you are diagnosed as metastatic following a previous breast cancer diagnosis that you’d already overcome, it’s natural to want to question whether your initial treatment was effective in the first instance, but having invasive cancer does not mean you or your healthcare team ever did anything wrong. Sadly, while science and treatment options for breast cancer are rapidly developing, even the very best treatments do not eliminate a woman’s risk of reoccurrence completely.
Even just one or two cancer cells missed during radiation, surgery or chemo could mean that your cancer could spread and grow a tumour somewhere else, months or years later. Some breast cancers (such as those that are HER2-positive or triple negative, in that they lack HER2 and hormone receptor expression) are also more aggressive than others and run a higher risk of recurrence no matter how aggressively they were initially treated.
Myth #5: Metastatic Breast Cancer Mutates Into Different Kinds Of Cancer As It Spreads Through The Body
Metastatic breast cancer develops when cells that originated from the initial breast tumour travel and grow in other organs, often your bones, liver and lungs.
They are still considered breast cancer cells, however, which means they are treated with breast cancer treatments. For example, should your breast cancer spread to your lungs, it would be treated as breast cancer and not with a lung cancer treatment.
In some instances, your doctor may repeat a biopsy of the tumours to confirm that the original subtypes (such as your HR and HER2 status) have persisted, given that some cancer cells can change and mutate overtime, making them resistant to certain treatments. That being said, they will always remain breast cancer cells.
Myth #6: My treatment Will Be The Same As Those Of All Other Metastatic Breast Cancer Patients
No two individuals are alike, neither are two breast cancers. As a result, there is not a one-size-fits-all approach to treatment. Your treatment plan and prognosis are dependent upon a number of factors including your tumour type, whether it’s a reoccurrence or a new cancer, your age, overall health and what treatments you may have previously used.
Your treatment plan will likely also change over time as your cancer adapts and builds resistance to medicines. The important thing to remember is that no two journeys are alike, so to focus on your own health.
Myth #7: Treatment Needs To Begin Immediately
It’s completely understandable to feel a sense of urgency after a Stage 4 breast cancer diagnosis, but it’s important to take the steps to understand as much as you can about your diagnosis in order to select the best treatment options.
It’s also worth considering a second opinion and exploring clinical trials before starting treatment to ensure you’ve explored all avenues that look to provide you with the best long-term outcomes.
Myth #8: Treatment For Metastatic Breast Cancer Should Be As Aggressive As Possible
It may seem counterintuitive, but treatment for Stage 4 breast cancers tend to be somewhat less aggressive than those of early-stage breast cancers. Whilst a doctor would look to eradicate an early-stage cancer as quickly as possible, by contrast, treatment for a metastatic cancer tends to focus on managing the disease over the longer period of time in order to limit side effects and enabling patients to live a fulfilled life with the disease.
This can involve taking as few medications as possible and changing medications when a treatment becomes ineffective.