Breast cancer is categorized by stages that describe the nature of the disease and the person’s outlook. Stage 4 breast cancer means the cancer has spread beyond its point of origin to other organs and tissue. When breast cancer advances to stage 4, the five-year survival rate is about 26 percent.
There is currently no cure for stage 4 cancer. But for some, it can be treated and managed. The reasons that some people with stage 4 cancer appear completely free of cancer after treatment aren’t clear. For many women who believe their breast cancer is in remission, the reality is that recurrence of the disease is likely.
Remission is an encouraging word, but it doesn’t necessarily mean the cancer is cured. When cancer is in remission, it means there are no signs of the disease that are visible to doctors. There is still a chance that the disease is in the body, but just at a level that is too small to detect.
When a treatment destroys all tumors that could be measured or seen on a test, it’s called a complete response or complete remission. A partial response or partial remission means the cancer partly responded to the treatment but did not fully go away. For some people, there is no way to be completely certain that the disease won’t return.
But there’s room for hope. The continued improvements in chemotherapy and other treatments for breast cancer have led to more people with stage 4 cancer living without a return of their disease. Advanced therapies are extending the time before recurrence occurs. There is reason to believe that further improvements, especially in areas such as stem cell therapy, will continue to increase the numbers of stage 4 survivors.
Recurrence means that the disease has returned after it was undetectable for a period of time. It may return to the same place where the cancer started. This is called local recurrence. Regional recurrence is when the cancer reappears in the lymph nodes near the spot where the tumor first developed.
Cancer is an unpredictable and often frustrating disease. You may be treated for stage 4 breast cancer with a combination of surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy. A comprehensive and exhaustive treatment plan may rid your breast tissue and surrounding lymph nodes of cancer.
However, cancer may develop in another organ, such as the liver. If the cancer cells in the liver are identified as the same type of cells that formed in your breast tissue originally, it means your breast cancer has metastasized. So even though a new tumor is growing in your liver, you are still considered to have stage 4 breast cancer.
If the cancer cells in the liver are different than the breast cancer cells, it means you have two different types of cancer.
The recurrence of stage 4 breast cancer can be discouraging. Treatment for the disease often means unpleasant side effects, and there is no way to know how the disease will respond.
If you have a recurrence of stage 4 cancer and find yourself feeling down and searching for answers, consider joining a support group. You may learn some helpful tips about treatments. You may also find inspiration and camaraderie in sharing and hearing other people’s stories. Talking with your doctor about depressive symptoms or other issues related to your cancer recurrence may be helpful as well.
The return of stage 4 breast cancer may make you eligible for a clinical trial that is testing a new procedure or therapy. Clinical trials can’t promise success, but they may allow you to try a new drug before it hits the market.
Dealing with the recurrence of stage 4 breast cancer is difficult. But remember that cancer treatments are improving every year, and people with stage 4 cancer are living longer than ever before.
There is no way to guarantee that a person in remission won’t experience a recurrence. Be proactive with your health and follow your treatment plan, as it will help you live longer with stage 4 breast cancer.