You may be doing research on the topic of metastatic breast cancer because you have been diagnosed with it or because someone you know is affected by the disease. There is so much information regarding breast cancer in general, you may be overwhelmed. Breast cancer caught at an early stage is considered both treatable and curable. In contrast, metastatic breast cancer, although treatable, is considered incurable. Individuals with metastatic breast cancer often feel neglected, since most of the information on the topic of breast cancer is in regards to its early stages. It is important to educate yourself so that you know what your options are and that there is hope.
Depending on how much research you have done, you may or may not be wondering: What is metastatic breast cancer? In general, metastatic breast cancer is one of two types of recurrent breast cancer. Recurrent breast cancer has reappeared after being diagnosed and treated. If it recurred in the same breast again, it is considered a local recurrence. If it came back but this time to other more distant parts of the body, it is referred to as a distant recurrence. This distant recurrence is also called metastatic breast cancer.
How is it treated?
Organs affected by metastatic breast cancer include the lungs, brain, liver, and sometimes the bones. The goal of treatment when the cancer has reached the organs is to keep the cancer under control, although a cure would be ideal. Your goal as a patient is to maintain a decent quality of life while treating breast cancer so it does not keep growing. A growing cancer which attacks other organs complicates the daily job of those organs, thus making it difficult for the patient to thrive. As a patient, your doctor wants to find a treatment option which can prolong your life with the least number of side effects.
Two ways to treat metastatic breast cancer are by hormone therapy and chemotherapy. Hormone therapy uses drugs to suppress the production of the hormones (or the effects of the hormones) which created the cancer. Chemotherapy uses chemicals to kill cancerous tissue or the disease-causing microorganisms in the body. Hormone therapy produces fewer side effects of the two but can only be effective if your breast cancer is estrogen or progesterone receptor positive. Sometimes your oncologist (physician who specializes in cancer) will switch to chemotherapy if your cancer is no longer responding to hormonal therapy.
Are there alternative treatment options?
Complementary alternative medicine, also known as CAM, encompasses a variety of treatment options which are not recognized as standard by the medical community. These methods include acupuncture, vitamins, and yoga, among others. If these treatment options are used together with another form of treatment, they are considered complementary treatments. They are considered alternative if used alone.
The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) was founded by the United States government to provide the public with information about these alternative therapies. It is part of the National Institute of Health and intended to educate people about safe alternative treatment options, since there are so many alternative therapies out there which are not regulated closely. The NCCAM has divided these therapies into five categories: mind-body medicine (yoga, meditation), biologically based products (medicines and herbs), energy medicine (Tai Chi, therapeutic touch, and Reiki), whole medical systems (homeopathy, naturopathic medicine, and Chinese medicine), and manipulative and body-based practices (chiropractic care and massage).
Should I take a break from treatment?
Symptoms may arise from breast cancer treatment, as different medications have different side effects. When your quality of life is affected by those side effects, you may decide to take a break, assuming your cancer is under control. Your body may appreciate the break, and you could be fine without treatment for a couple years or more.
If your cancer progresses further, you can return to treatment. Sometimes when returning to treatment, people experience more pain than before. If this happens, radiation is sometimes recommended in those areas of persisting pain. Using radiation may help reduce or eliminate your need to take so many pain medications. As a result, side effects may lessen as well. Of course, always consult your physician first.
Should I end treatment?
Possibly the most difficult decision you will have to make regarding metastatic breast cancer is when to stop treatment. If you are not the patient, and reading this because you have a loved one who is considering ending treatment, you need to be supportive. The burden put on the body from all of the unsuccessful treatments and by the financial burden can be overwhelming. Although cancer patients want to be there for those around them, living with a poor quality of life may not be worth it for anyone. It is up to the patient to decide.
Ending treatment does not mean ending care, which may even improve. Hospice care is often covered by insurance and can take place at a hospice facility, at a hospital, or even in your home. You will have pain relief if needed, and help with daily tasks. They also provide psychological support which can put you at peace with your decision.
If you have metastatic breast cancer or have a loved one struggling with the disease, it can be a very trying time. Researchers are constantly working to find new ways to halt the growth of metastatic cancer cells and to interrupt the steps it takes for a tumor to metastasize. Since clinical trials are needed to test these approaches, they may be a good option for you if you are willing to try one of them. In the past, results of clinical trials have progressed cancer treatment, as well as its diagnosis, detection, and steps to prevention. Talk to your doctor about possible clinical trials and maintain hope for a cure.