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New Study Finds Longer Survival Rates For Women With Stage 4 Breast Cancer

Mammogram film image in doctor's hands.

A new study has found longer survival rates for women with Stage 4 breast cancer, the most severe form. 

Dr. Roshni Rao is an associate professor of surgery at UT Southwestern Medical Center talks about distant metastatic breast cancer and what accounts for the study's results.

Interview Highlights:

About distant metastatic breast cancer: “Breast cancer usually starts in the breast; it goes from the breast to the lymph nodes. If it’s in the breast and the lymph nodes alone, that’s what we call ‘local disease,’ and that is generally considered curable. Once the breast cancer has gone to other parts of the body – to the bones, to the liver, to the lungs – that’s when we consider it distant metastatic, and that’s Stage 4 breast cancer. We’ve traditionally not thought of that as being curable, but we do still treat it and it’s considered treatable.”

The research that found longer survival rates: “It’s an estimate of trying to figure out how many patients are living with Stage 4 breast cancer. They compared two different time frames: from 1992 to 1994 and then 2005 to 2012. In that earlier time frame, there’s only about an 18 percent five-year survival. So that means at the five-year mark, over 80 percent of patients had died of their breast cancer or some other disease. However, in the more recent time frame, 36 percent of those patients were still alive at five years.”

Why is this happening? “Because we’re identifying new, what we call, systemic therapies: new medications, including chemotherapy, targeted therapies that are able to keep the disease under control for prolonged periods of time.”

What patients are or should be doing to contribute to this outcome: “As a general rule, what we tell our patients is it's important to stay as healthy as possible, even when you have a diagnosis of Stage 4 breast cancer — so that you continue to eat right, to exercise, with the idea that as these new agents (therapies) come along, especially as we look at clinical trials.

"So, I encourage all my patients with Stage 4 breast cancer to think about participating in a clinical trial. And that’s where you not only get access to maybe a medication that’s brand new, but you’re also able to help push the science forward. So you want to be healthy enough that when we come along with the next medication, next targeted agent, we want to put you first on that trial.”

What should people take from the research about longer survival rates? “I would tell anyone with Stage 4 breast cancer that it’s certainly more of an optimistic diagnosis than it used to be. The majority of these patients will still die of their disease at some point, so you don’t want to give false hope, and that’s important. Having said that, we’re able to keep patients alive for longer and longer periods of time.”

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