‘Don’t Sugarcoat Things’ When Someone You Know is Diagnosed with Metastatic Breast Cancer

October 21, 2020
Beth Fand Incollingo

CURE, 2020 Breast Cancer Special Issue ,

“Most kinds of breast cancer are potentially curable, but metastatic breast cancer is not,” says Kathleen Friel, lab director at the Burke Neurological Institute of Weill Cornell Medicine. “People assume, ‘Oh, you must be fine because you look fine.’ It puts a lot of expectations on us that, if somehow we’re strong enough, then we’ll beat this disease.”

Breast cancer can be scary and life-altering at any stage, but those with metastatic disease, which has spread to areas beyond the breast and nearby lymph nodes, live a unique experience. Their perspective and decisions are shaped by the knowledge that their illness is incurable and that they’ll need treatment for the rest of their lives.

Patients facing this diagnosis often say that only others in the same situation can truly understand what they’re going through. CURE® talked with five people living with the disease, all ambassadors for Facing MBC Together, an Athenex Oncology program that includes a website and app designed to provide practical and emotional support. Here, we share an excerpt from Kathleen Friel’s journey with metastatic breast cancer.

Friel is no stranger to having a misunderstood health condition. Being teased in school as a child with cerebral palsy prepared her well for having metastatic breast cancer, she says. “People don’t understand, and the same is true of metastatic breast cancer,” says the 46-year-old scientist and lab director at the Burke Neurological Institute of Weill Cornell Medicine, who learned in May 2018 that she had the disease and it had reached her spine.

“Most kinds of breast cancer are potentially curable, but metastatic breast cancer is not,” the Hartsdale, New York, resident says. “People assume, ‘Oh, you must be fine because you look fine.’ It puts a lot of expectations on us that, if somehow we’re strong enough, then we’ll beat this disease. But with cancer, you can try everything and it might not work.”

On working full time with metastatic breast cancer

“I really love my job and the people I work with, so in some ways it was almost like emotional therapy to stay involved. We’re creating new therapies for children with cerebral palsy, so I feel like it’s not just a job — it’s really a passion. The people in my lab have been so good to me. One time I had radiation and my doctor told me I shouldn’t drive, so I asked a co-worker for a ride. All four of them went, waited for me and took me out to eat afterward.”

On finding emotional support

“I have a strong support system with other metastatic breast cancer patients who understand what I’m going through. Thank God for social media and support groups. Now that I know those people, I don’t feel isolated, even if some others I know aren’t supportive. Facing MBC Together is also cool because I got to meet all the other ambassadors, and we’re really close friends now.”

On being there for those with the disease

“If somebody in your life gets a diagnosis of metastatic breast cancer, really listen to them and don’t try to sugarcoat things. People think it’s helpful, but it isn’t. At least for me, the most helpful thing is to talk about what’s really going on. Even if you say, ‘I don’t know what to say, but I’ll listen,’ that’s enough.”

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