HOW LONG HAVE YOU BEEN LIVING WITH MBC? Seven years. I was diagnosed at age 43 in August 2009. I will be 51 at the end of 2016.
DID YOU HAVE A FAMILY HISTORY? Yes. My mom died from inflammatory metastatic breast cancer at age 53. Anyone with a family history should talk to their doctor to determine an appropriate screening schedule.
WHAT OTHER RISK FACTORS DID YOU HAVE? Well, the biggest one would be being a woman…followed by getting older… I am childless, meaning I have had a longer exposure to estrogen. Also, I am of Ashkenazi Jewish descent. About 10 percent of Ashkenazi Jewish women diagnosed with breast cancer in the U.S. have a BRCA1/2 mutation. I do not have either of these mutations, however.
Scientists believe that certain disorders became more common among Ashkenazi Jews because of at least two processes: the founder effect and genetic drift. (Read on for an explanation.)
IS YOUR CANCER HEREDITARY? No. Despite my family history, genetic testing showed I am NOT a carrier of the BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutations. Being diagnosed with cancer prior to age 40 can signify a hereditary connection, but as of 2016, the answer for me is “No.” People should know that for most cancers (breast are otherwise) are not hereditary—only about 10% fall into that category. Most cancer is considered “sporadic” meaning it just happens.
DID YOU HAVE EARLY STAGE BREAST CANCER THAT CAME BACK? No. I was metastatic from first diagnosis, aka a de novo presentation. This puts me in the minority–about 94% of those with Stage IV breast cancer were previously treated for early stage breast cancer. Given my mom’s history, our Ashkenazi Jewish background and other factors (not having children, etc.), I had a medium to high risk for developing breast cancer. I did not expect to be dealing with it in my 40s. We often think of breast cancer as an old lady’s disease–probably because the median age for breast cancer in the US is 61, but younger people (and men) can get it.
WHAT SUBTYPE IS YOUR CANCER? I have the most common subtype: ER/PR positive and HER2 negative. About 80% of people with breast cancer have this subtype. It is sometimes referred to as “estrogen-receptor positive disease” meaning that the cancer uses estrogen to grow. The other two common subtypes are generally referred to as HER2 positive and triple negative. Someone with HER2 positive breast cancer can used a “targeted” therapy; unfortunately with the triple negative subtype there is nothing to target and chemotherapy is generally the only treatment option available.
WHAT TREATMENTS HAVE YOU HAD? People are sometimes surprised to learn that although I have lived with Stage IV breast cancer, I haven’t had IV chemo…yet. Most people are familiar with early-stage breast cancer where you might have surgery, perhaps radiation and then, if needed, a limited course of chemotherapy.
Stage IV breast cancer means treatment for life. Once the cancer cells escape the breast and spreads to a distant organ, there is no way to remove all of it. The Metastatic Breast Cancer Alliance uses a dandelion analogy to explain this. If you can pull a yellow dandelion up, roots and all, you have eliminated that dandelion from your lawn. If the dandelion has gone to seed, it doesn’t matter if you dug up the entire plant—those seeds have escaped. You might not see them sprout right away, but sooner or later you will.
Stage IV breast cancer is a marathon…not a sprint. Where possible, patients start with the least toxic option first. Not all patients will get the same mileage out of a given drug. It might work for months, maybe years (if you are very lucky) or not at all (if you’re unlucky). Eventually drug resistance sets in and a drug stops working. Patients must then go on to their next treatment—eventually most will run out of treatments.
Here are the drugs I have had to date: Tamoxifen (2009 to 2011); Femara (2012 to 2014); Faslodex (Jan 2015 to April 2015); Afinitor/Exemestane (May 2015 to August 2015). November 2015 to present: Xeldoa. The last two drugs are oral chemo drugs. IV chemo is likely next, but hopefully not soon. Because my cancer is estrogren-driven, I had ovarian suppression shots from 2009 to May 2012 and eventually an oophorectomy. I also get a quarterly bone boosting infusion.
Surgery is not standard of care for someone with Stage IV disease but in some cases there is thought to be a benefit. I had a unilateral mastectomy followed by about a month of radiation in 2010.
HOW OFTEN DO YOU SEE YOUR ONCOLOGIST? I see my oncologist monthly. If I were on IV chemo, I would see him more often. Every three to four months my oncologist sends me for CT/PET and bone scan. These test determine if my treatment is working—these tests make most MBC patients anxious—patients frequently refer to “Scansciety.” If the cancer stayed the same (nothing bigger or smaller) that means I am “stable” and that is a good thing. Having No Evidence of Disease (NED) is even better. Progression is the worst news a patients can get—it means their disease has spread and they must change treatments. Unfortunately, there is no guarantee how long one may remain stable or NED—in the majority of cases, eventually the disease does spread.
ANY LONGEVITY SECRETS? No. I am just “lucky.” I started out with a low-volume of bone-only disease. My disease has had a fairly slow tempo to date. I can’t take credit for those things–I was just fortunate my cancer responded to the drugs. I now have extensive bone mets (again, I am glad to say they haven’t caused me pain). At the end of 2015, I learned I have liver mets. So far, I have been fortunate to remain symptom-free and a good quality of life. I know this will change—so I try to live in the present. I don’t have superior doctors, more powerful drugs or a better attitude than any other patient. I just was fortunate at the cellular level. As oncologist George Sledge says, “Biology is gloriously messy.”
ANYTHING TO ADD? We are all statistics of one. My experience is just that–my experience.