Actress Marcia Strassman Died From Metastatic Breast Cancer

Actress Marcia Strassman was one of very few public figures to openly discuss her Stage IV breast cancer

Actress Marcia Strassman was one of very few public figures to openly discuss her Stage IV breast cancer

Marcia Strassman, the actress best known for her roles in “Welcome Back Kotter” and “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” died from metastatic breast cancer  this month at age 66. My condolences to her friends and family.

Strassman was something of a hero to me because she was the only famous living person I knew with metastatic breast cancer. I have been on the same drugs as Strassman, so of course I took inspiration that she lived with the disease for seven years.

The actress was one of very few high profile people to talk about having metastatic breast cancer–see this Stand Up 2 Cancer video. Elizabeth Edwards was the last national figure in recent years to share her metastatic breast cancer diagnosis. When Marcia Wallace (the actress who voiced Mrs. Krabapple on “The Simpsons”) died last year, a close friend of hers said she died of breast cancer, but Wallace’s family initially denied this was the case. Understandably, Wallace’s family may not have known what happened.

Although Strassman freely acknowledged her Stage IV diagnosis, not a single news report used the phrases “Stage IV” or “metastatic” breast cancer. I hope I don’t sound petty–to her grieving friends and family I am sure this is is a small point and one that unfortunately does nothing to alleviate their loss.

But it is so important.

Two weeks ago, I participated in a meeting for Chicago-area people living with metastatic breast cancer. Attendees could put on different colored necklaces signifying their breast cancer subtypes: hormone-receptor 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 decisions.

Had these people’s doctors told them the specifics of their disease? Had they asked? Do they understand their treatment plans? We will never make any progress against metastatic breast cancer if we pretend it is all one disease.

Saying that Marcia Strassman died of breast cancer after living with it for seven years somehow implies she died because she let her guard down and WHAM! breast cancer got her.

This is not what happened. When someone dies from breast cancer, they died because the cancer spread beyond the breast and eventually overwhelmed the body.

From published interviews, we know Marcia Strassman was a denovo metastatic breast cancer presentation. This means she was Stage IV from her first diagnosis–when her breast cancer was found, it had already spread to her bones–this is unusual, the majority of those diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer had early stage disease.

Strassman shared that she had lobular breast cancer–i.e., the cancer began in the milk-producing lobules. About 10% of all invasive breast cancers are invasive lobular carcinomas (ILC). (For reference, about 80% are invasive ductal carcinomas (IDC.) Lobular breast cancer grows in sheets–not lumps–and therefore doesn’t show up on mammograms well. (Strassman did in fact have regular mammograms, was a non-smoker and maintained a healthy lifestyle.)

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.

Strassman had a lumpectomy and then began standard of care for hormone-receptor positive breast cancer. According to a 2009 magazine article: “One drug, Femara, an aromatase inhibitor in pill form that Strassman takes every morning, starves tumors of the estrogen they need to grow. The other, Zometa, which is administered in monthly infusions in her doctor’s office, is a bone-building bisphosphonate that can slow deterioration in people with bone metastases.”

Strassman “endorsed” Zometa early on, but either she or the drug company chose to quietly drop the partnership. (The late Barbara Brenner, then the head of Breast Cancer Action, was critical of a 2010 SABCS luncheon featuring Strassman.)

People can do well with bone-only metastatic disease for a long time, often well surpassing the median survival time for Stage IV breast cancer which is two to three years. Although one source reported Strassman had been given 2.5 years to live upon her initial diagnosis, it’s unlikely any oncologist would have offered such a prognosis–they just don’t know. Strassman, with no visceral organ involvement at her diagnosis, would have been on the “good” end of a metastatic diagnosis.

Strassman did so well that, two years after diagnosis, a writer marveled at how good she looked: “Strassman doesn’t look like someone who’s battling a grave illness,” Linda Marsa observed.”Once her condition was stabilized by the combination drug therapy, she had surgery to remove remaining cancerous cells and several lymph nodes. Since then, bone scans have revealed no further deterioration, which is excellent news. She will take some form of therapy for the rest of her life. ‘This is cancer—but it’s a speed bump,’ Strassman insists. ‘You slow down, but once you pass it, you keep going.'”

Although bone mets can be painful and in some cases disabling, generally speaking, from what I understand, they are not immediately life threatening. When breast cancer spreads to a visceral organ–like lungs, liver or brain–that is a different kettle of fish. It should be stressed that some people can and do live with mets to these areas for a long time–but we are all different.

We don’t know exactly what course Strassman’s disease took–only that it almost certainly spread beyond her bones. But we do know one thing for certain: Marcia Strassman died from metastatic breast cancer.

Strassman and some friends talked about her Stage IV diagnosis in this 2009 interview.

Strassman and some friends talked about her Stage IV diagnosis in this 2009 interview.

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10 thoughts on “Actress Marcia Strassman Died From Metastatic Breast Cancer

  1. MBCNbuzz says:

    Reblogged this on MBCNbuzz and commented:
    Another great post by Katherine O’Brien on a celebrity who died of mbc.

  2. The Accidental Amazon says:

    Katherine, thank you for this. Unfortunately, I can attest to the fact that sometimes people w MBC either do not ask, do not want to ask, or are simply not informed by their doctors what subtype they have. I have provided rehab over the years to a number of women with metastatic breast cancer, and have seen every manner of reaction to this diagnosis. And I’ve often been amazed at and concerned about and eventually resigned to how little some know or want to know it. Everyone deals with such a diagnosis in her own way, I realize, but so often I’ve seen women just not want to get near the details, to leave it all up to the doctor. It’s hard to bear witness to, but it’s not my place as a physical therapist in such situations to try to convince patients to inform themselves more than they wish to. Perhaps it doesn’t make a difference to their prognosis, but I always think knowledge is helpful.

    And your point about naming MBC as the cause of death, and not just calling it generic breast cancer, is well made. It’s frustrating that this lack of accuracy persists in the media, along with the myriad of other misconceptions and inaccuracies we all have to endure, especially in October.

    Kathi

  3. Thank you for this very useful description of mets and the differences from “regular” bc. I had Invasive Lobular Carcinoma and always have the fear of recurrence lurking in my back drop but also like to have all the facts. This post has a very good comprehensive overview of the entire scope of mets, thank you for posting. And yes, the facts about MBC are important, most women that I talk to still think BC is curable…..

  4. Ignorance about sub-type is not limited to MBC patients. About a year after I completed treatment, I sat in a room with about a dozen other women for a little class about how to eat, clean, and just live using more natural (non-cancer causing) products. We all introduced ourselves and everyone talked about their stage. I was the last to intro myself and I added I was ER/PR negative, and HER2 positive and none of the others knew what I was talking about! I shocking speechless; one the class moderators explained it to the group–they were all dumbfounded. Even my own aunt, diagnosed just 2 months before me, kept asking me why I had to keep going to infusion (for Herceptin) so long after finishing chemo. So much for all that silly awareness.

  5. Darlene Gant says:

    Beautifully written! I too have stage IV and was originally dx in late 2005. I have founded a non-profit for women with cancer and continuously educate women about their particular cancer- getting biopsy reports and “knowing” your cancer; getting registered on BCtrials.org to know what trials are an option for you in case things turn; eating an anti- inflammatory diet as well to help with inflammation as this illness is an inflammatory one much like all chronic diseases. I am into energy work, meditation, CAM therapies and anything that feeds your soul. I was on Hospice in 2012 with a biliary drain, completely yellow/jaundice as my liver was engulfed with tumors and shutting down and had not eaten in 4.5 months (down to 118lbs from usual 165lbs). I fought for Compassionate Use via YouTube and it went viral in 48 hours. I got the drugs (no chemo as I could not tolerate it) and am here today 2.5 years later. Graduating the Hospice program. My mets are throughout bones, liver and lungs. I keep moving and am still under treatment. I live a pretty normal/average life. Google my name and see the YouTube video that went viral and a BIG thanks to all the people around the world who fought for me – shutting phone lines down in the FDA and at Genentech. The all fought for me while I could not – I could not ambulate 2 ft to a potty chair. We need The Right to Try – so we can get any drugs out here, even on trial if and when we need it.m ~ Darlene Gant

  6. Elizabeth J. says:

    There is a lot of naivety about all cancers. Some is because patients do not understand, or perhaps just cannot process, the facts they are given. Some is because of doctors who are not forthcoming with the facts. When I took a lady from my church for radiation for throat cancer (different oncologist and clinic from where I went), it was obvious no one had explained much of anything in understandable terms. Another lady in church whose husband has progressed stage 4 lung cancer does not understand how this is possible when her husband was “so positive” earlier. One woman who had had stomach cancer told me she was told she was “cancer free” except for a little “spot ” on her bones. (Her funeral was a few months later.)

    I do not think we ought to be terrifying people or taking away hope, but people have a right to understanding, to reality. It was very concerning to see Ms. Strassman describing her MBC as a “bump in the road.” My oncologist was very clear that MBC will eventually progress, but he also said he has had patients with it in bones who made it 10 or more years, living close to a normal life for most of it, and we have no way to predict who they will be.

    • katherinembc says:

      Elizabeth–I agree on both points. Many people don’t understand the implications of metastatic breast cancer–either because they were never told or they didn’t grasp what they were told. It does not help that most popular accounts of breast cancer don’t deviate too far from the “Happily Ever After” script. The theme is generally the same: stay positive and all will be well. But all cancers are not the same–and unfortunately cancer patients don’t get extra credit for having upbeat attitudes.

      I also agree that Strassman as quoted in that article somewhat minimized metastatic disease. More troubling is that the writer used Strassman to kind of advance her thesis–if you have a warm circle of friends, you can beat cancer. It certainly helps to have such wonderful support, but we all know people with many lovely friends and kind family members–emotion and good will unfortunatey doesn’t trump the biological reality of metastatic breast cancer

  7. […] On Facebook, someone had posted an article from a blog called ihatebreastcancer about the death of the actress Marcia Strassman from metastatic breast cancer. It was really well-written and interesting, lauding Strassman as one of only a very few […]

  8. Clara says:

    When I was kid, I watched Marcia Strassman’s “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” many times, and now when I am an adult I still like it much. Marcia Strassman was a great actress.

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