Living on the Edge: Some Patients with Metastatic Cancer Live Long and Well

A growing population of patients have emerged: long-term metastatic cancer survivors.

KATHY LATOUR
PUBLISHED: JUNE 04, 2010
Talk about this article with other patients, caregivers, and advocates in the Colorectal Cancer CURE discussion group.
Suzanne Lindley has become so busy that her husband, Ronnie, added a tracking device to her cell phone so he could keep up with her—not the life you’d expect from someone living with metastatic colon cancer. Just recently Lindley was in Florida for the Daytona 500, then on to Washington, D.C., to testify before a health subcommittee exploring radiation therapy. The next week she was back in Texas, loading horses for a rodeo, where her 19-year-old daughter Karlie was performing, before heading out for a spring vacation with Ronnie, Karlie, and 22-year-old daughter Katie.

“I am one lucky girl,” Lindley says. Lucky, yes, but also determined and dedicated. Diagnosed in 1998 with colon cancer that had metastasized to her liver, Lindley, then 31, was told that the only drug available didn’t offer much hope; she had six months to live. 

Around 20 percent of cancer patients diagnosed annually in the U.S. have distant or advanced disease, meaning that their cancer has spread, or “metastasized,” to a different site from the original tumor. Some patients are diagnosed with metastatic cancer; others are treated for a local cancer that comes back, or recurs, at a distant site. A number of factors, including where the cancer metastasizes, available treatment, an individual tumor’s biological makeup, and how the patient responds to treatment determine how long the patient survives and his or her quality of life.

Lindley is an example of the growing number of “chronic” metastatic patients, a relatively new group who are alive because they were diagnosed on the crest of emerging targeted therapies, drug combinations, surgical options, and radiation treatments to which their tumors responded. 

These patients have benefited from being able to “hitchhike,” meaning when one treatment stops working, they can move to the next. Advances in supportive care have also helped minimize side effects, so patients are given hope, time, and a quality of life that eases living while still living on the edge, waiting for the next new treatment to come along. 

Penny Damaskos, LCSW, coordinator and clinical supervisor in the department of social work at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, oversees support groups for metastatic patients. 

“The composition has changed from mostly breast cancer and prostate,” she says. “Now we have lung, colon, and hematologic patients who are living with chronic cancer.” 

Damaskos says these patients go through treatment, are stable for a while, and then start treatment again. “It’s not farfetched and fantasy to live with the hope that there will be another new treatment that may not cure them but will give them more time with less symptoms,” she says.

Talk about this article with other patients, caregivers, and advocates in the Colorectal Cancer CURE discussion group.
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