When the Elephant in the Room Is Pink

Meghana Bhandari, M.D.
Texas Oncology–Sugar Land

October is a time to celebrate breakthroughs in breast cancer treatment that helped create more than 3 million survivors in the U.S. One in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in her lifetime, but the average five year survival rate for breast cancer is 89 percent. When cancer is located only in the breast, the survival rate is 99 percent. That’s progress worthy of all the pink ‘everywhere’ that occurs each October.

Telling patients they are cancer-free is the best part of my job. While more breast cancer patients than ever will reach this milestone, it’s important to recognize that some will not. Three in 10 breast cancer patients will see their disease metastasize, or spread far from its original site. Many of these brave fighters will endure and survive additional rounds of treatment.

Metastatic breast cancer usually occurs several years after a patient’s first diagnosis, and is sometimes called “distant recurrence.”  Metastases may include cells that are very different from the original cancer cells and may be resistant to previously used forms of treatment.

Today, there are several options for managing metastatic breast cancer. Some women live for many years with this disease. But on average, women survive three years. It’s understandable that people are not eager to talk about recurrence risk, but this pink elephant in the room is a profound challenge for patients and the oncology community.

It’s critical that the courageous women surviving with metastatic breast cancer have strong communities to support and surround them. With quality care delivered in small and large communities across the state, Texas Oncology patients don’t have to choose between being near their support networks and being near their treatments.

There is reason for tremendous hope. Cancer research is advancing. With more discoveries about how cancer cells work, researchers are developing new ways to target them, interrupting the signals they send and receive to control their growth, and harnessing a patient’s own immune system to fight cancer with fewer side effects. The innovations of a few years ago are already saving lives. Through Texas Oncology’s clinical trial programs, women in Houston are benefitting from some of the most promising trials underway right now, without having to leave their support system.

While researchers continue the work to find new treatment breakthroughs, it’s important to do all we can to support the women living with metastatic breast cancer now. In addition to enabling patients to stay near their communities of support, Texas Oncology helps patients address personal and emotional needs beyond their cancer. This includes providing information about the importance of nutrition and exercise, and working with community organizations, volunteers, and support groups. We also help patients connect with counselors and other resources that can help make fighting metastatic breast cancer less difficult.

Our metastatic breast cancer patients are a source of inspiration and challenge for my colleagues and me. Nationally, 155,000 women are surviving this type of cancer. On their behalf, we are committed to pursuing new and better treatment options, so that more of them also can receive the good news that they are cancer free.