A breast cancer diagnosis is one the most frightening things a woman can experience. We know, because it has happened to us.
We are grateful to live in a time in which breast cancer can be diagnosed early, treated and beaten.
But this Breast Cancer Awareness Month, amid all the pink ribbons and races for the cure, it’s also important to recognize the many breast cancer survivors who will never beat the disease, but need our support.
One-third of women who have had breast cancer diagnoses will at some point develop metastatic (also known as “stage-four”) breast cancer – meaning that cancer cells have returned and metastasized, or spread to other parts of the body.
Although metastatic breast cancer isn’t curable, it is treatable. Medical advances now offer disease control and enhanced quality of life, allowing some patients to live for years. But the reality is that women with metastatic breast cancer must fight the disease for the rest of their lives – battling cancer while potentially caring for their families and even going to work.
Much of the conversation surrounding breast cancer, however, is centered around curing breast cancer or driving it into remission. Too many people tend to define a breast cancer survivor as someone who has beaten the disease, and not focus on the survivors of metastatic breast cancer who will continue to fight it for the rest of their lives.
These metastatic breast cancer warriors, women who are survivors even though they likely will never beat the disease, feel left out – because they are.
Women living with metastatic breast cancer often experience pain, fatigue, depression, high medical costs, debilitating side effects from treatment, job loss, anxiety and more. They feel neglected by employers, lawmakers and even by the health-care community, but they need our support.
It’s time to change the conversation, and we all can take action:
• Employers and coworkers can strive to provide better support in the workplace. Women who work while in treatment have the added challenge of balancing their new, and sometimes uncertain, health reality with professional commitments. In addition, employers and coworkers may have misconceptions about the employee’s health, well-being and ability to remain a vital part of the workplace. The American with Disabilities Act covers people with cancer, and provides tips to accommodate and strengthen employees battling the disease.
• Lawmakers can strengthen access to treatment. This year, Georgia lawmakers passed the Jimmy Carter Act, which prohibits insurers in our state from forcing metastatic/stage-four cancer patients to try other drugs before they are approved for therapies prescribed by their physicians. When it comes to battling cancer, quick access to care is paramount to staying one step ahead of the disease, and our lawmakers should consider broadening the legislation to cover all Georgians living with cancer, not just those in stage four.
• The medical community can be more inclusive of stage-four breast cancer. The American College of Surgeons’ Commission on Cancer accredits hospitals providing the best in cancer care, yet its survivorship care plans still focus on people who have completed treatment, excluding those with metastatic disease who will be in treatment for the rest of their lives and also need help maintaining healthy lifestyles.
Every member of our community has an important role to play in lifting up women with breast cancer, as long as we recognize that for some women, battling breast cancer is not just a race – it’s a marathon.
(The writers, respectively, are vice president of the Georgia Center for Oncology Research and Education in Atlanta; and director of the Georgia Society of Clinical Oncology in Atlanta. Georgia CORE and GASCO collaborate to provide education, tools and resources designed to improve quality of care for cancer patients and quality of life for cancer survivors.)