What have we learned about Metastatic Breast Cancer, Charlie Brown?

Did-You-Know-Logo-SmallI am coming up on my fifth year of living with metastatic breast cancer. I am fortunate–I started with a low volume of bone mets and five years later my disease has remained fairly indolent. Not everyone is so lucky–and believe me, it is only luck. It isn’t like I tried harder or did anything special–I was just “lucky” enough to have a “kind” of breast cancer (ER/PR+; HER2-) and bone-only disease that has been fairly low key. I try not to take this for granted.

As I think back to what I knew about breast cancer in 2009, I am embarrassed. I really didn’t know anything. I remember puzzling out the facts of my case–as though I was in high school muddling through my Spanish homework–constantly stopping to look up words  and rereading everything. N0w I like to think I have a basic fluency in breast cancer, but I also realize there is so much I don’t know.

When I was first diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer, I wanted to set the world on fire. I think I have calmed down a little bit. I hope I have become more focused.

Prior to my own diagnosis, I thought of breast cancer as one disease. I didn’t realize that the absence or presence of cell receptors--as determined by one’s pathology report–guide treatment as does HER2 status. (“The  tissue is the issue,” as my friend Marnie says.) Tumor characteristics ultimately determine what “kind” of breast cancer one has.

Most breast cancer can be categorized as follows:

  • ER/PR+; HER2- (accounts for 65% of breast cancer cases)
  • ER/PR+; HER2+ (accounts for 20%  of breast cancer cases)
  • ER/PR-; HER2-. (accounts for 15%  of breast cancer cases)

Update: A couple of readers with ER-/PR+ breast cancer noted that the above is a bit of an oversimplification.  Here is a further breakdown courtesy of BreastCancer.org :

  • ER+: About 80% of breast cancers are estrogen-receptor positive.
  • ER+/PR+: About 65% of estrogen-receptor-positive breast cancers are also progesterone-receptor-positive. This means that the cells have receptors for both hormones, which could be supporting the growth of the breast cancer.
  • ER+/PR-: About 13% of breast cancers are estrogen-receptor-positive and progesterone-receptor-negative. This means that estrogen, but not progesterone, may be supporting the growth and spread of the cancer cells.
  • ER-/PR+: About 2% of breast cancers are estrogen-receptor-negative and progesterone-receptor-positive. This means that the hormone progesterone is likely to support the growth of this cancer. Only a small number of breast cancers test negative for estrogen receptors but positive for progesterone receptors.
  • ER-/PR-: If the breast cancer cells do not have receptors for either hormone, the cancer is considered estrogen-receptor-negative and progesterone-receptor-negative (or “hormone-receptor-negative”). About 25% of breast cancers fit into this category.
  • HER2+: In about 25% of breast cancers,the HER2 gene doesn’t work correctly and makes too many copies of itself ( HER2 gene amplification). All these extra HER2 genes tell breast cells to make too many HER2 receptors (HER2 protein overexpression).

Also: If you are reading scientific papers, it’s helpful to know that researchers typically  divide breast cancer into four major molecular subtypes: Luminal A, Luminal B,  Triple negative/basal-like and HER2 type. Read a detailed explanation here.

Inflammatory breast cancer (IBC), the kind my mom had, refers to an unusual presentation–there’s no lump, the disease is generally found at Stage 3 or Stage 4. In general, IBC is first treated with chemo, followed by surgery and then radiation. Hormone receptor and HER2 status guides treatment–someone with IBC could have ER/PR+ HER2- breast cancer, for example.

I knew invasive ductal carcinoma (IDC)  (starts in ducts)  and is the most prevalent kind–it accounts for 50 to 75% of all invasive breast cancers. Invasive lobular carcinoma (ILC) (starts in milk glands, aka lobules)  is the next most common type, making up about 10 to 15% of all invasive breast cancers.  ILC generally does not have “lumps” like you’d find with IDC. Instead, ILC grows as sheets of cancerous cells–therefore it is harder to find via mammograms or self exam. With ILC, for any given stage or grade, the prognosis is similar to that of IDC. The pattern of metastases is slightly different vs. IDC–lobular carcinoma can metastasize to unusual sites, including the gastrointestinal tract, peritoneum, and adnexa (refers to uterus/ovary).  Invasive lobular carcinoma is more likely to occur in both breasts compared with other types of breast cancer. ILC tends to occur later in life than IDC — the early 60s as opposed to the mid- to late 50s.

I knew that breast cancer had stages and that Stage 4 wasn’t good. I didn’t realize that no one dies from early stage breast cancer–but that 20 to 30 percent of those with early stage breast cancer will go on to have a metastatic recurrence.

I did not know that a de novo presentation–someone who is metastatic from first diagnosis, is the exception rather than the rule. About 90% of those with metastatic breast cancer were previously treated for breast cancer; only 10% of us are metastatic from the start.

I did not realize that our US cancer registry does NOT track breast cancer recurrence–even though that is how most people join the metastatic breast cancer ranks. The NCI and SEER databases record only incidence, initial treatment and mortality data.  What happens in between — in terms of recurrence and the exact number of people living with metastatic breast cancer — is undocumented. As Musa Mayer says, ““It is as if these metastatic [people]  are invisible, that they literally don’t count. And when we don’t count people’s needs, we can’t provide or plan for them.”

I did not know breast cancer could spread to your bones, liver, lungs or brain. I knew it was bad if it spread beyond your lymph nodes.

I did not know that having the “worst” kind of breast cancer doesn’t necessarily mean you will have chemo right away. I assumed ALL cancer patients had chemo.  In my case, I will not have chemo until all of  the less toxic options have been tried first. This is both because of my cancer’s characteristics ( ER/PR+; HER2-);  and because my cancer remains under good control. Someone with triple-negative breast cancer can’t use  the anti-hormonal drugs (Tamoxfin; Femara, etc) that I do–their cancer would not respond (because it lack the necessary cell recpeptors).

I did not know having metastatic breast cancer means you are a patient for life. Or that the average patient may receive eight or 10 different treatment regimens in sequence. When one drug fails, you move on to the next one. Most people with MBC see their oncologist every month. If  the cancer is under good control, these appointments might be less frequent. But for most it is at least a monthly visit.

I did not know every three or four months I would have scans to see how well or  if my treatment was working. This is anxiety provoking and hard to understand if you have never experienced it.

I didn’t know my scan results could be categorized as No Evidence of Disease (NED), Stable (nothing got bigger or smaller, everything stayed the same); or Progression. I have never been NED but I have been stable, which is good, too.

I did not know that in some cases, people can live with metastatic breast cancer for a long time. I assumed everyone with metastatic breast cancer immediately got really sick and soon succumbed to the disease. While that does happen to some people, it is not universally true. Prognosis depends on many factors, including disease subtype and tempo.

I knew that not having children increases one’s risk for breast cancer, probably because of the unopposed flow of estrogen. I didn’t realize HAVING children increases a woman’s risk for breast cancer for about 10 years after giving birth. I would be willing to bet many women’s doctors either don’t know this or assume that this is a rare occurrence.

I assumed that being diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer at age 43 put me on the younger end of the MBC spectrum. I have sadly discovered this is not the case. I have met women in their 20s with metastatic breast cancer. While it is true that breast cancer is a disease of aging, I think members of the general public would be shocked to hear from some of these young people. Anecdotally, my experience is that there quite a few young women with MBC–too many, in any case.

I did not know that although breast cancer is diagnosed in far more white women, black women are far more likely to die of the disease.

I knew that men could get breast cancer but I  assumed this hardly ever happened. I have met (in person and online) at least five men with metastatic breast cancer. I am pretty sure these men and their families take scant comfort in the “rare” categorization.

I assumed that if one needed financial aid, one could merely call upon one of  the well-known cancer associations or national breast cancer groups. (Let me stress I am fortunate that I have not had to seek financial aid, but I know many who have.) I have learned that few national groups disburse funds. Typically one has to get help  from a local chapter or affiliate or community group and once those funds are gone for the year that’s it. I have learned most aid is fairly modest–getting help will require applying to many different sources.

I did not realize how poorly funded ALL metastatic cancer research is.

I did not know that a  drug that PREVENTS metastasis may not SHRINK a large, refractory tumor. It has a different mechanism of action that is NOT picked up by the clinical trial system. I did not realize some of our best metastatic researchers are advocating for a new approach to clinical trials.

I did not realize that most Breast Cancer Awareness Month coverage focuses almost exclusively on those with early stage disease. People are either afraid of our reality or prefer to ignore it in favor of  “feel-good” stories. Of course, we’ve also seen the other extreme–someone assuming ALL people living with MBC are on their deathbeds, which isn’t necessarily true either.

I did not know the  incidence of stage IV breast cancer—the cancer that is lethal—has stayed about the same; screening and improved treatment has not changed this.

I did not know breast cancer kills 40,000 annually in the US and half a million worldwide. Breast cancer remains the second leading cause of cancer death for women in the US, and it is the leading cause of cancer death for women globally.

Most of all, I did not know that there was so much that I did not know!

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45 thoughts on “What have we learned about Metastatic Breast Cancer, Charlie Brown?

  1. Jean Thompson says:

    Katherine, you are such a good and fierce and articulate advocate – and thanks to you, I now know (some) of what you know.

  2. Gail Speers says:

    Good post! I was dx Stage IV age 45 yrs, bones only. Ten yrs later still bones only but new tumours so back to chemo. Enjoy life on hormonals! Pursue your dreams! Gail

    • Diana Connolly says:

      Gail, I was just diagnosed bones only, ER/PR+, Her2/neu- a couple months ago. How are you now? Would love to hook up with similar case women. Some of the FB groups have way too much gloom and doom.

  3. Nicole says:

    Great post! I shared it in Facebook to enlighten my friends, hope that is ok.

  4. Katherine
    This is a wonderful summary of the state of knowledge of metastatic breast cancer and I think many of us share your experience. Thanks for writing this!

  5. Great post! It clears up a lot of myths and misinformation.

  6. The Anti-Cancer Club says:

    What an incredible look into the cancer experience. The things we don’t know are so overwhelming…but we all learn as we go. Thank you for writing this. I’ll share it on Facebook and twitter.

  7. Thank you Katherine, this is a wonderful post. I’m also sharing.

  8. Great post, Katherine, I will also share it on Twitter to spread the word out here in the Netherlands.

  9. francesmgill says:

    Reblogged this on Updates on Frances' adventures playing Pac-Man and commented:
    An easy to understand description of advanced breast cancer. Stats are from the USA, but ours are not that much different.

  10. Susan says:

    Reblogged this on Susan's Blog! – Advocates 4 Breast Cancer (A4BC) and commented:
    This post is brilliant and I am reblogging and sharing because everyone needs to read this to understand every point you are making about what we have learned about metastatic breast cancer.

  11. Julie DuSablon says:

    We are sisters! I was also diagnosed stage 4 with mets, ER+, PR+, HER-, from the get-go in 2009, also stable. However, I could not have written such a cogent and wonderful essay! Keep ’em comin’. You inspire me.

  12. Jessica says:

    WONDERFUL article. Truly breaks down many of the things that a lot of us didn’t know before this journey started. I’ve shared on Twitter, thank you!

  13. Jessica says:

    Would I be able to share this on my blog? Thank you for the consideration!


  14. Becky says:

    Katherine, in your list of “three main categories of breast cancer” you don’t list ER/PR-; HER2+ which is what I am. I was diagnosed Stage four with lung mets 4 years ago and have been stable ever since. However it is sometimes hard to not think of when the other shoe will drop. Thank you for the excellent post. Becky

  15. Jacky says:

    What about putting lobular versus ductal into the mix ! My oncologist says they behave differently although other than being slow growing and slow responding to treatment don’t know what else is different.

  16. Trish Blair says:

    Thanks, this is super informative, sending you healing x

  17. Katherine what an awesome post; and I felt like I was reading my story! I too was diagnosed with mets from the get go in 2009; I was 42 years old. er/pr+ her2 neg., my mets were limited to the orbit of my eye and a couple tiny tumors on my ovaries.
    I have been NED since beginning treatment.
    Everything you stated you didn’t know about bc, I didn’t know either. I have to say I was a bit ashamed that it took a stage 4 dx of my own to become educated about bc in general!

    Thanks again for sharing and I look forward to reading more of your posts!

  18. Scorchy says:

    Never have a I hated a learning curve more than that of metastatic breast cancer. I have shared– and will continue to share–widely.

  19. Can I reprint this on my blog (Booby and the Beast)? It is so perfect.

  20. kymlucas says:

    Thank you for an excellent overview of all the things most of us didn’t know until getting breast cancer.

  21. […] “What have we learned about Metastatic Breast Cancer, Charlie Brown?” by Katherine O’Brien, I Hate Breast Cancer Blog. […]

  22. […] Katherine’s latest blog is a must read for everyone who wants to learn the true facts about breast cancer. […]

  23. Chris Beck says:

    Your post is exactly what I am going through to the teeeee! Same age and same diagnosis. I was reading and saying OMG me to. Thank you could not of put it in words.

  24. […] are the operative phrases (pun intended) for those whose cancer has not progressed. A wonderful primer on this not-so-wonderful disease awaits the reader who really wants the […]

  25. […] on a second treatment and have done well on that for two years. I am fortunate—because of the characteristics of my breast cancer (ER/PR+ and HER2-, the most common type), I was able to start on the very lowest end of the toxic […]

  26. […] positive, HER2 positive or triple negative. I was surprised that several women did not know this basic piece of information–one that is the road map to their care and treatment making […]

  27. […] of good blog entries out there about metastatic breast cancer, but by far one of my favorites is What Have We Learned About Metastatic Breast Cancer, Charlie Brown? It’s comprehensive and witty, and one line especially stands out to […]

  28. […] What have we learned about Metastatic Breast Cancer, Charlie Brown?. […]

  29. […] What Have We Learned About Metastatic Breast Cancer (Patient’s Cheat Sheet to the Basics) […]

  30. […] cancer—after all, my mom had died from it. I had firsthand experience. After my own diagnosis, I found out that I really didn’t know anything. Unless you have metastatic breast cancer, you probably don’t think about it much—why would […]

  31. barbigelow says:

    Loved your summary

  32. […] What Have We Learned About Metastatic Breast Cancer (Patient’s Cheat Sheet to the Basics) […]

  33. […] and progesterone) made the oncologists focus on the HER2+ status rather than the hormone status. This blogger provides an excellent summary of these aspects of breast cancer if you want to read more about […]

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