Metastatic breast cancer (MBC), also known as stage 4 cancer, is incurable and is responsible for the deaths of nearly everyone who dies from breast cancer. MBC is when the cancer has spread outside the breast to other parts of the body — typically the bones, lungs, liver or brain. A recent study estimates that as of January 2017 there are nearly 155,000 women living with MBC in the United States alone and about 25 percent of them were diagnosed at stage 4 from the beginning; the other 75 percent progressed to stage 4 from an initial earlier diagnosis.
This group is an understudied population, and this is indeed an underfunded stage of breast cancer. The result is a huge gap in breast cancer research and very few treatment options available for MBC patients. The majority of breast cancer funding and pink ribbon campaigns have gone to awareness, prevention and treatment for early-stage disease. However, about 30 percent of those with early stage breast cancer will eventually metastasize, and many breast cancer patients are not even aware of that fact. The average prognosis for MBC has remained at just three years for decades. Thanks in large part to the hard work of many patient advocates raising awareness and dedicated researchers, this is starting to change.
We are finally starting to see the needle moving. More money is slowly starting to go toward studying treatment for MBC. As a result, better treatments have started to become available and the groups’ five-year survival rate doubled, from 18 percent in 1992-1994 to 36 percent in 2005-2012. That’s progress in the right direction and we need to keep going until this is made a chronic disease, not a three-year death sentence.