What is Metastatic Breast Cancer?
For women breast cancer is a major health concern — as many as one in nine American women will be affected by the disease. The survival rate for early detection is very high. Once the cancer has spread, or metastasized beyond the breast and lymph nodes, it is known as metastatic breast cancer. Cancerous cells may have spread to the bones, lungs, liver, brain or to other areas. The chances of surviving longer then five years drops dramatically as it is much more difficult to control a cancerous growth that is in more than one area of the body.
Why Treatment is Different
Due to the nature of this disease in its advanced stage, metastatic breast cancer treatment options and methods are different then what is used for a tumor that has not already spread. In fact the entire approach may be different. Rather then aggressively attacking a cancerous growth with one or more of the following options — surgery, hormone therapy, chemotherapy, radiation therapy and biological therapy — with the goal of destroying the growth and preventing a re-occurrence, metastatic cancer is addressed more as a chronic disease.
Treatment is intended to slow the spread as much as possible with the least harm to the body. Some of the same treatment options may be used, but not as intensely. Options such as surgery are no longer possible, while other medications may be used that are not as common in the treatment of contained breast cancer.
Although the approach is different and completely defeating the cancer is less likely, with today’s medical advances many women are capable of surviving five years or more. It is estimated that forty percent of patients with metastatic breast cancer will become survivors.
Metastatic breast cancer is often still treated with hormone therapy if possible. This method tends to have fewer negative side effects while helping to slow the growth of the cancer. Medications, such as fulvestrant or tamoxifen inhibit estrogen from promoting the progression of the disease.
Chemotherapy, which is the use of drugs to kill cancer cells, may still be used once hormone therapy stops working. Chemo treatments are however different for breast cancer that has already spread. Different drugs and less of them are generally used. Available in pill form and well-suited for long-term use, capecitabine is often used to manage metastatic breast cancer.
Targeted therapy may also be used, sometimes in conjunction with chemotherapy. This newer method involves taking medications to attack specific cells. With a narrow target, such as only cells that promote the growth of cancer cells or cells that supply blood to tumors, targeted therapy drugs destroy less healthy cells. This means that targeted drug therapy tends to come with less negative side effects then chemotherapy drugs. Trastuzumab, lapatinib and capecitabine are all examples of commonly used medications. More, newer drugs are being studied.
Natural Therapies and Quality of Life
Alternative and complementary medicine can be used to improve the quality of life while living with metastatic breast cancer. Simple things such as eating a nutrient-rich diet, getting regular exercise and taking measures to manage stress, such as meditation, deep breathing exercises and yoga are healthy habits anyone can easily take up to improve the quality of life. Breast cancer patients can also talk to their health care provider about seeking alternative forms of medicine to help the body cope with conventional treatments and ideally to help the body stay as healthy as possible. Options include herbal medicine, massage therapy, acupuncture, aromatherapy and mind-body medicine.
Metastatic breast cancer treatment may be different then treatment for cancer that has not metastasized. It still may involve the use of aggressive therapies, but the approach is more oriented towards sustaining the best quality of life that is possible. While not as easy to cure, there are many reasons to be positive about the treatment that is available for patients today.
Cancer Care <www.cancercare.org/pdf/booklets/ccc_rec_met_bc.pdf>
Balch, Phyllis A. “Prescription for Nutritional Healing.” Fourth Edition (Penguin Books, 2006).