Understanding Metastatic Breast Cancer
- Actress and metastatic breast cancer warrior Shannen Doherty, 50, is a cancer slayer, and she does it with a smile on her face.
- Since being diagnosed with stage 4 (or metastatic) breast cancer in 2015, she has made it a point to be transparent about her cancer battle. And her latest health update — an Instagram post shared Friday — revealed she was at the doctor again for scans, calling herself a #cancerslayer.
- Stage 4, or metastatic, cancers have spread beyond the breast and nearby lymph nodes to other parts of the body. When breast cancer spreads, it most commonly goes to the bones, liver and lungs. It may also spread to the brain or other organs.
Since being diagnosed with stage 4 (or metastatic) breast cancer in 2015, she has made it a point to be transparent about her cancer battle. And her latest health update — an Instagram post shared Friday — revealed she was at the doctor again for scans, calling herself a #cancerslayer.Read More
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As someone with metastatic breast cancer, Doherty needs to have scans every few months to monitor her disease and make sure it doesn’t spread further than it already has.
Shannen Doherty’s Cancer Battle
Shannen Doherty’s battle with breast cancer dates back to 2015, which is when she was first diagnosed with the disease; a lump was found in her breast, and it turned out to be malignant (cancerous).
To fight the cancer, she underwent hormone therapy, but the treatments were ineffective; the cancer had spread to her lymph nodes.
The actress underwent a single mastectomy — surgery to remove a breast; she also had chemotherapy and radiation treatments. One common treatment path for many people fighting breast cancer is surgery, such as a mastectomy or lumpectomy. (A lumpectomy is a surgery to remove cancerous breast tissue along with a rim of normal tissue.)
Doherty’s cancer went into remission, but she announced in February 2020 that her cancer had returned, and it had spread to other parts of her body. This is stage 4 cancer, also known as metastatic disease.
Understanding Metastatic Breast Cancer
Stage 4, or metastatic, cancers have spread beyond the breast and nearby lymph nodes to other parts of the body. When breast cancer spreads, it most commonly goes to the bones, liver and lungs. It may also spread to the brain or other organs.
As is true in Shannen Doherty’s case, breast cancer cells can move from the original tumor and travel through the body, sometimes resurfacing months or years after the condition is treated. The process that causes cancerous cells to re-appear is not well understood.
Dr. Alana Welm of the Huntsman Cancer Institute explained in a previous interview with SurvivorNet: “We’ve been working for a long time to try to understand how breast cancers spread and, more importantly, how they grow once they’re living in the bones or the brain or the liver or the lungs.”
When a metastatic tumor is discovered in another part of the body, it is still composed of breast cancer cells, regardless of where it spreads to.
In a previous interview with SurvivorNet, breast cancer medical oncologist Dr. Erica Mayer of the Dana Farber Cancer Institute explained different ways that breast cancer might be diagnosed: “There are many ways in which a person is found to have metastatic breast cancer. Sometimes, this is picked up on an imaging test or a blood test. And sometimes, this is picked up through a symptom that comes up that leads to further evaluation.”
Some people may have metastatic breast cancer when they are first diagnosed with the disease; this is called de novo metastatic breast cancer. For the majority of patients, metastatic cancer only appears years after they are first treated for early or locally advanced cancer, like in Doherty’s case. These situations are known as distant recurrences.
Dr. Elizabeth Comen, a breast oncologist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, explained in a previous interview with SurvivorNet, “With advanced disease, the goal of treatment is to keep you as stable as possible, slow the tumor growth and improve your quality of life.”
Maintaining Quality of Life With Metastatic Breast Cancer
While treatment for metastatic breast cancer is not curative, it can improve your quality of life; it is important to work with your doctor to develop a treatment plan that’s right for you.
“Quality of life typically involves many things including treating symptoms effectively and modifying lifestyle to allow time for treatment and to accommodate to living with a chronic disease,” Dr. Kenneth D. Miller, a medical oncologist at the Alvin & Lois Lapidus Cancer Institute at Sinai Hospital of Baltimore, previously told SurvivorNet.
“A positive attitude doesn’t cure cancer but also contributes to living well with cancer. Faith, spirituality, intimate relationships, friends, and families help as well.”
In some cases, you may need more aggressive therapies that can be lifesaving. Finding the right combination of treatments for your breast cancer and your body may take some time. Be patient and work with your doctor to arrive at the right treatment plan.
Contributing: Anne McCarthy & Lindsay Modglin