Secondary (or metastatic) breast cancer is the name given when cancer cells spread from the breast to other parts of the body, most commonly the liver, lungs, bones or brain.
At this point while the cancer is still treatable it is no longer curable. But incurable cancer doesn’t mean terminal cancer – a common misconception among the public.
In fact, people can still live their best lives with the illness. Catherine Priestley, clinical nurse specialist at Breast Cancer Care, tells HuffPost UK: “While some cancers progress quickly, there are people who live for years after their diagnosis, often holding down jobs, raising families, even travelling the world.”
To coincide with Breast Cancer Awareness Month, we asked Priestley to debunk some of the other things people wrongly believe about secondary breast cancer.
1. Secondary breast cancer can be cured.
The word ‘secondary’ is often misunderstood, says Priestley, who works on Breast Cancer Care’s helpline and speaks to people living with secondary breast cancer on a daily basis.
“It’s regularly interpreted as less serious than ‘primary’ breast cancer (when the cancer hasn’t spread to other parts of the body) and people living with the disease tell us all the time how upsetting it is when others assume treatment will cure them,” she explains.
“Instead, treatment aims to control the cancer, relieve any symptoms, and maintain health, wellbeing and a good quality of life for as long as possible.”
2. Incurable means terminal.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, some think a secondary breast cancer diagnosis means death is just around the corner. While some cancers progress quickly, there are people who live for years after a diagnosis. Take for example Coppafeel founder Kris Hallenga, who was diagnosed over nine years ago.
“Usually, people living with the disease have no idea how long they have,” says Priestley. “This uncertainty can be the hardest part, though for others not knowing their prognosis makes day-to-day life easier.”
3. Looking well means feeling fine.
“People living with secondary breast cancer don’t always conform to stereotypes of what cancer patients look like (e.g. hairless or frail), so others may assume they’re fine,” says Priestley.
“This is despite them often dealing with horrendous, unseen side effects like pain and extreme fatigue. The assumption is incredibly problematic in many situations, especially when out and about on public transport.”
Rebecca Willcox, who has secondary breast cancer, frequently has to navigate London’s transport system and explains in a blog to strangers what that’s like: ”I can’t show you my cancer, and I (like most other cancer patients I know) don’t want to go into the ins and outs of why I need help.”
She asks people not to assume that looking well equates to feeling it: “I really don’t expect to have to wave my chemo book at you, whip out my mastectomy scars or point out the bruising from the latest injections.”
4. You can’t talk about death.
Priestley says although individuals vary, many people with secondary breast cancer want to talk about their diagnosis, and acknowledging that it is a life-limiting illness is a big part of this.
“Unfortunately, we hear all the time that people lose friendships after a diagnosis, even though this is a time they need support more than ever,” says the nurse. “Often this is because people struggle to talk about death, and the pressure of saying the wrong thing or facing up to their own mortality becomes overwhelming.
“Many living with the disease find talking to people going through the same thing a huge relief, as they can say things that are too hard or uncomfortable to say to friends and family.” The charity runs Living with Secondary Breast Cancer groups across the UK.
Find out how you can help Breast Cancer Care ensure that people living with secondary breast cancer can access the vital support they need here.