Opinion | Living with metastatic breast cancer

KEY STEP: Making drugs like CDK inhibitors available to all Australians could significantly improve the quality of life for thousands of people living with metastatic breast cancer.
KEY STEP: Making drugs like CDK inhibitors available to all Australians could significantly improve the quality of life for thousands of people living with metastatic breast cancer.

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month and you might have noticed your world looking a little pinker than usual as individuals, businesses and community groups gather together to raise awareness and funds to support people with breast cancer and find a cure.

Much of the focus will be around the statistics of people diagnosed with breast cancer and the encouraging survival rates we have here in Australia. 

However, where do the stories of people living with an incurable form of the disease fit in among the stories of pink and survival?

Metastatic breast cancer – also known as Stage 4 breast cancer, terminal breast cancer or secondary breast cancer – occurs when the cancer spreads beyond the breast to other parts of the body such as the bones, lungs, liver and less commonly the brain.

Today is Metastatic Breast Cancer Awareness day.

Metastatic breast cancer cannot be cured but it can be treated. As a result, people diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer will receive some form of treatment for the rest of their lives.

We know that around 3000 Australians will die from breast cancer in 2017 but we do not know how many Australians are currently living with metastatic disease.

So what does a life with metastatic cancer look like?

It looks like endless questions and uncertainty. It looks like periods of wellness punctuated by bouts of illness and treatment.

Many people with metastatic cancer will live for many years with the disease – and some will live well.

A new class of drug called CDK inhibitors are helping people with metastatic breast cancer around the world to live well.

In clinical trials these drugs have been found to substantially improve progression-free survival and delay women having chemotherapy.

What this means is more ‘well’ time away from hospital. It means women are not dealing with the toxins of chemotherapy and the challenging side effects like hair loss, nausea and nerve pain.

These drugs can allow them to spend more time with their family and friends, doing the things they love.

Despite being available in other countries the first round of CDK inhibitors were only approved in Australia in May this year.

The government has not approved these drugs for inclusion on the PBS, which means people wanting to access them will have to pay $5000 a month to have them.

We know this cost is simply out of reach for many Australians. Breast Cancer Network Australia has been working hard to change this and get these important new drugs into the hands of Australian women.

While October is a time to pay tribute to those who have died from breast cancer and support those going through breast cancer, it is also a time to highlight the enormous impact breast cancer has on the lives of women and men – and consider what can be done to reduce this impact.

Making drugs such as CDK inhibitors available to Australians living with metastatic breast cancer is an important step in the right direction, and one that could significantly improve the quality of life for thousands of people living with this disease.

Danielle Spence is the Director of Policy and Advocacy at Breast Cancer Network Australia.

For more information and support tailored to people with metastatic breast cancer, visit the network’s website bcna.org.au