Top Myths About Metastatic Breast Cancer

by Barbara O'Dair Health Writer

Understanding metastatic breast cancer isn’t easy. First off, it’s not a specific kind of breast cancer, but rather the most advanced stage (known as stage IV): The cancer has spread beyond the breast to other distant parts of the body. Some people get a first diagnosis of metastatic breast cancer, but that isn’t typical. Most often, metastatic breast cancer arises sometime after you’ve completed treatment for early breast cancer. Is stage IV breast cancer your fault? Doesn’t this mean there are no treatments left to try? No and no. Let’s consider these and a few other myths for a clearer picture of the condition.

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Myth: A metastatic breast cancer diagnosis means you didn’t follow your treatment program correctly.

Talk about blaming the victim! The fact is, treatment can reduce the risk of cancer recurrence, but it can’t eliminate it. “Unfortunately, breast cancer doesn’t differ that much from other cancers,” says Arnold Baskies, M.D., American Cancer Society Past Chairman of the National Board of Directors. “Cancer cells are very smart. Their goal is to stay alive. [In a stage IV diagnosis,] the cancer outsmarted the treatment.” In other words, you most likely didn’t get a stage IV diagnosis because you skipped a mammogram or forgot to examine yourself or didn’t control risk factors.

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Myth: There is no treatment for metastatic breast cancer.

To the contrary: There have been huge strides made in metastatic breast cancer treatment. “Twenty years ago,” says Dr. Baskies, “there were real limitations for patients with stage IV breast cancer. But now there are very effective treatments,” including a wide array of promising targeted therapies, according to recent research in the World Journal of Clinical Oncology. These days, “the hope for patients when one treatment stops working is that there will be another they can try,” says Susan Brown, R.N., senior director of education and patient support at the Susan G. Komen Foundation and a former oncology nurse.

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Myth: There is a cure for MBC.

Even while the number of treatments for MBC is growing and the quality is improving, there is no cure for stage IV breast cancer right now. Nevertheless, “while we can’t cure a lot of diseases, we can extend survival,” says Dr. Baskies. “We have hope that we can take a disease that was fatal and make it chronic.” Indeed, while a cure may be elusive, advanced precision treatment options that are tailored to an individual cancer’s characteristics are improving survival rates as well as quality of life, the two main goals of MBC treatment, says Brown.

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Myth: Joining a clinical trial can be risky.

Not at all. “Clinical trials should be an option for patients to consider every time they are diagnosed,” says Brown. Still, there are misunderstandings about trials that keep some women away. For example, the fear that volunteers may be given a placebo over an effective treatment. Here’s the reality: In a breast cancer clinical trial, you’ll be given either the new treatment or the standard one. “No one goes without treatment,” says Brown. For how to find a clinical trial and more, the Susan G. Komen Foundation offers an information hotline.

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Myth: When breast cancer travels to the bone, brain, or lungs, it then becomes “bone cancer,” “brain cancer,” or “lung cancer.”

It can be confusing, but breast cancer stays breast cancer wherever it travels in the body. “Some cancers are genetically endowed with ability to spread,” says Dr. Baskies. “It’s not a haphazard event. Breast cancer cells go to bone because they are programmed [to do so]. If they go from breast to bone, the cancer cells are still breast cancer, but breast cancer living in a bone environment.” In other words, a metastatic breast cancer tumor in a different part of the body is still made up of breast cancer cells.

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Myth: You can’t have biological kids if you have MBC.

Not completely true. While preserving fertility can be challenging, there are programs to help women who want to have a biological child after a metastatic breast cancer diagnosis. However, says Brown, “these are decisions that patient and her provider need to discuss.” Reproductive capability “depends on the type of breast cancer and the type of treatment you’re getting,” she says. Some treatments could cause infertility or, if the patient is already pregnant, could damage the fetus. Your doctor will review all the risks and help you take steps to freeze eggs or embryos before treatment starts.

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Myth: People with MBC have the same emotional experience as earlier-stage patients.

“The experience for people with metastatic breast cancer is very different from those with early-stage breast cancer,” says Brown. First off, “people undergoing treatment in early stage are expecting to be cured,” she says. People who receive a stage IV breast cancer diagnosis are grappling with the ideas that 1) there is no cure for their cancer, and 2) they will be in treatment for the rest of their lives. Organizations like CancerCare offer services to patients and their loved ones to help them work through the unique challenges come with this kind of diagnosis.

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Myth: You will look sick all the time with metastatic breast cancer.

While, yes, there’s a strong chance that you will lose your hair with a course of chemo, there are many other treatment options for metastatic breast cancer without that side effect, and people often appear well while taking them. In fact, patients with MBC sometimes look better than they feel and have to remind friends and family that no matter what they look like, they’re not necessarily feeling great. For those who want a visual pick-me-up, however, the American Cancer Society program “Look Good Feel Better” offers beauty and hair tips for women who are undergoing treatment.

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Myth: An MBC diagnosis means you don’t have much time left to live.

“Not true,” says Dr. Baskies. “Patients can survive for well over five years.” In fact, 34% of women with metastatic breast cancer have survived for five years or more, according to the National Cancer Institute. Some women may even live 10 or more years beyond diagnosis. “It’s not appropriate to use the term ‘terminal’ for stage IV breast cancer,” Dr. Baskies says. “Because you don’t know. Who is it going to be?” With new therapies such as biologic targeted treatments and novel drug combinations, people with metastatic breast cancer have more to look forward to, possibly for years ahead.

Barbara O'Dair
Meet Our Writer
Barbara O'Dair

Barbara O'Dair is the former editor in chief of Prevention. She has edited or written for the New York Times, Time, Rolling Stone, Health, AARP, and many other digital and print publications.