Life, Redefined: Living Well With Metastatic Cancer
Living well with metastatic cancer means finding ways to accept the diagnoses and continue to move forward.
PUBLISHED: APRIL 20, 2017
SHIRLEY MERTZ, president of the Metastatic Breast Cancer Network, makes two lists before undergoing follow-up scans: what she’ll do if she gets bad news and what she’ll do if the news is good. “Am I finally going to take that trip to Hawaii?” she asks.- COURTESY SHIRLEY MERTZ
Until very recently, the words “metastatic cancer” translated as “terminal.”
While median survival rates for stage 4 cancers are still staggeringly lower than those associated with earlier stages, a growing list of cancers can be treated with newer drugs, and the outlook for better longevity for patients with metastatic cancer is growing more hopeful by the day.
John Marshall, M.D., chief of oncology and hematology at Georgetown University Medical Center and director of the Ruesch Center for the Cure of Gastrointestinal Cancers, both in Washington, D.C., says that advances in treatment, combined with our increased access to information, has transformed the conversation. “Just a few years ago, a patient with metastatic disease would ask, ‘Is there anything you can do for me?’ Now, the question is, ‘What’s next?’” he relates.
Patients with certain types of metastatic cancer, such as prostate cancer, multiple myeloma and certain subtypes of lung and breast cancer, can live for years, even decades, with the help of treatments that either keep disease stable or eradicate it altogether. As such, people have started to use terms like “chronic illness” and “manageable.”
Marshall says that he always told his patients, “Just stick around long enough, and maybe we’ll get smarter.” Though he has always meant this, Marshall says it wasn’t until recently that he actually saw it happening.
“We’ve created a new kind of patient — the stage 4 N.E.D. (no evidence of disease),” he says, “and are faced with a good problem: figuring out how to take care of someone dealing with the longterm impacts of metastatic cancer.”
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