Metastatic Breast Cancer: What Are My Options?
- It’s been one week since the beloved British pop singer Sarah Harding lost her fight with breast cancer at the age of 39, and one of her former bandmates marked the somber anniversary with a heartfelt post.
- Just like every other type of cancer, breast cancer has stages — 1, 2, 3 and 4. Metastatic is just another word for stage 4, meaning the cancer is in the late stage.
- There’s no cure for metastatic breast cancer, so sometimes, choosing to partake in a clinical trial of some sort may be your best option to extend your life and/or enhance your quality of life.
“One week without you!! Thinking of you all day everyday & trying to imagine how your new journey is going,” Nadine Coyle wrote in an Instagram post today. “Please feel free to come visit me anytime.”
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Harding was diagnosed last year and shared the news of her metastatic breast cancer diagnosis a few months later in August 2020. Since the cancer had spread, doctors had told Harding that she wouldn’t make it to Christmas, but she fought to hang on as long as she could.
“Earlier this year I was diagnosed with breast cancer and a couple of weeks ago I received the devastating news that the cancer has advanced to other parts of my body,” Harding said of her health at the time. “I’m undergoing weekly chemotherapy sessions and I am fighting as hard as I can.” She lived with her cancer for a whole year, beating the doctor’s prediction by eight months.
Girls Aloud members — Cheryl, Coyle, Harding, Nicola Roberts and Kimberley Walsh — rose to fame together in 2002 when they won spots in the Brit-Irish band following ITV’s Popstars: The Rivals, and the female pop group was formed. They took a break in 2009, and briefly rejoined in 2012.
“I know lots of people will want some Sarah spirit time so I can wait my turn,” Coyle writes. “I hope you now know how much you are loved & how you impacted so many lives by being wholeheartedly yourself. Always an inspiration, always a shining light & always my friend!! ❤️”
Understanding Metastatic Breast Cancer
Just like every other type of cancer, breast cancer has stages — 1, 2, 3 and 4. But what does it mean when you or a loved one has metastatic cancer? Well, metastatic is just another word for stage 4, meaning the cancer is in the late stage.
Stage 4, or metastatic, cancers have spread beyond the breast and nearby lymph nodes to other parts of the body, according to the American Cancer Society. When breast cancer spreads, it most commonly goes to the bones, liver and lungs. It may also spread to the brain or other organs. It’s unclear where in Harding’s body her cancer had spread.
Harding was relatively young when she died — just 39 years old. Women don’t typically begin to undergo regular mammograms until they turn 40. Dr. Ann Partridge, an oncologist at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, tells SurvivorNet that about 11,000 women 40 and younger are diagnosed with breast cancer every year in the United States. (Partridge is also the founder and director of the Program for Young Women with Breast Cancer.)
Roughly 260,000 women are diagnosed with breast cancer annually in the country, so that’s a small percentage of women. But in some ways, she says, a diagnosis for a younger woman can often be even more devastating because the cancer is likely to be a more aggressive form of the disease, and also at an advanced stage, because screening for younger women is not standard.
“Young women are more likely to be diagnosed with breast cancer that is more aggressive,” Partridge says. “Their disease is more likely to be of the subtypes of breast cancer, because breast cancer isn’t one disease — the ones that are more aggressive and tend to be what we call a greater stage. That is, they’re more likely to have bigger tumors and more likely to have lymph node involvement at diagnosis than older women.”
Part of this problem, Partridge says, is because young women aren’t typically being screened.
That’s why screenings, like mammograms, are life-saving. Dr. Connie Lehman, a director of the breast imaging clinic at Mass General Hospital in Boston, tells SurvivorNet that it’s very important for women to get a mammogram every year, especially if you haven’t yet gone through menopause.
“We know that cancers grow more rapidly in our younger patients, and having that annual mammogram can be lifesaving,” Lehman says. “After menopause, it may be perfectly acceptable to reduce that frequency to every two years.”
Clinical Trials and Metastatic Breast Cancer: What Are My Options?
There’s no cure for metastatic breast cancer, so sometimes, choosing to partake in a clinical trial of some sort may be your best option to extend your life and/or enhance your quality of life.
“If I were a cancer patient with a widely spread metastatic cancer, I would also want to be on a clinical trial,” Dr. Ben Neel, director of the NYU Perlmutter Cancer Center in New York City, tells SurvivorNet. “Even if you get the control arm of a trial, you’re actually likely, statistically, to have a better outcome — that’s number one — and number two is, for most patients who are going to be on a clinical trial in a major academic medical center, these are patients who have metastatic disease.”
If you remember earlier, we told you that metastatic cancer is a tumor that’s already spread beyond its initial location, and is occupying different parts of the body.
“In general, those tumors, with few exceptions like melanoma with immunotherapy, those tumors are generally incurable with current therapy,” Neel says. “But within that bevy of therapies, there are going to be some dramatic successes. The only way that you can get access to many of these drugs, especially the early phase drugs, is in the context of a clinical trial.”
Some of the therapies being tested in clinical trials will fail, according to Neel. However, participants in clinical trials are statistically more likely to have better outcomes. If you think a clinical trial might be the best option for you, ask your doctor for more information about what kind of trial would be right for you and your disease.