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Breast Cancer Awareness Month focuses on many issues surrounding the disease, but one form often receives too little attention: Metastatic Breast Cancer (MBC). MBC is a Stage IV cancer that has received less in the way of research, funding, and attention than early stages of breast cancer. In order to spread awareness of the need for more MBC research, October 13th every year is Metastatic Breast Cancer Awareness Day.
Metastatic breast cancer is cancer that has spread outside the breast to other organs, a process called metastasis. This process is fatal, but MBC studies receive only about 7 percent of breast cancer research grants. There are many reasons why it should receive more funding:
There is currently no cure for MBC, so treatment is focused on easing symptoms, improving quality of life, and lengthening lifespans. The goal of MBC research is to make metastatic breast cancer akin to a chronic disease in the same way that diabetes and HIV/AIDS have become, where patients can be stable on medications for 20 years or more.
Treating MBC involves regular monitoring of condition, usually scans every 3 months that involve periodic imaging tests (CT, PET or bone scans or MRIs), blood tests measuring tumor markers, and assessment of how the patient is feeling. These scans may occur less frequently, every 6 months, if metastases remain stable or shrink. Some patients may be found to be NED, no evidence of disease, but that doesn't mean they're cancer-free or in remission -- cancer cells are still active inside the body. But this is still a positive outcome and one that increased research may help people achieve more often.
Treatment is lifelong, focused on managing symptoms and stopping further spread of the disease. It depends on the kind or subtype of MBC, as patients may be on either targeted therapies or systemic chemotherapy. Radiation and surgery are also sometimes used.
Clinical trials, controlled treatment studies on new drugs, are potentially a very effective option for MBC patients. There are varying risks and benefits to participating in clinical trials, but they help patients receive access to useful new drugs before they reach the market.
Clinical trials are the method used to obtain FDA approval for new treatments. Phase 1 and 2 trials take place among a relatively small sample size, and are used to determine the dosage, safety and effectiveness of a new drug. Phase 3 trials are larger scale studies that compare current standards of care to the success of a new treatment.
Participation in these trials can be incredibly valuable for MBC patients. It takes 8-10 years and approximately $1 Billion for a new drug to go from a chemistry model to FDA approval: participation in a trial can give a patient access to a new treatment years before others. Stage 3 trials in particular are a great option, as 34 percent of drugs that reach this stage make it to market. Your participation can also provide useful research data to improve metastatic breast cancer treatments.