Breast Cancer Treatment Commercials Fail to Show the Reality of Metastatic Cancer

A woman living with metastatic breast cancer explains why TV commercials depicting carefree, happy people do not reflect the reality of her experience. “My life and the lives of those affected by metastatic breast cancer is anything but normal. Too many of us are dying every day,” she writes.

For the first time since my metastatic breast cancer diagnosis, I participated in a breast cancer walk. It was about an hour’s drive from my house to the event in Santa Monica. Being early in the morning there was little traffic and I made great time, easily finding a nearby parking space. As I headed up the stairs to the Santa Monica Pier and found my team, I was just beginning to feel overwhelmed. Since the pandemic began, I have rarely been out anywhere with this type of crowd, the biggest crowd I've been in would probably be the grocery store. The pandemic has turned me into a hermit.

With my team and all the other teams gathered on the pier, the endless chatter from the man on the makeshift stage shouting into the loudspeaker, the vendor booths and crowds, the vibe to me was chaotic. I brought my recently adopted mini–Schnauzer, Ashley, with me and she was ready to walk. There was no staggering of the teams of walkers. It was pretty much a free-for-all once the walk was underway, with the crowd eventually thinning out as we proceeded down the pedestrian path alongside the ocean. As we walked, I met a woman who was walking in support of a friend of hers who is a survivor. Naturally the conversation at a breast cancer event leans to why we are there and how cancer affects us. I told her I have been living with metastatic breast cancer, to which she responded with how she had seen the pharmaceutical commercials on TV but didn’t understand what it meant to have metastatic breast cancer. I took this moment as an opportunity to explain metastatic breast cancer is advanced cancer that has spread beyond the breast. I told her there is no cure, only treatments such as the ones on those commercials, with an average life expectancy of 24-36 months. This is in no way the joyful outcome shown in these advertisements.

The pharmaceutical companies advertising these drugs need to do better. I hear the commercials on the radio. I see them on my television. I am subjected to the ads in magazines. In every commercial the actors portrayed are showing the unrealistic side of living with metastatic breast cancer. The actors inevitably are participating in a cheery moment as they talk about being as “relentless” as their disease. At the end of every commercial the possible side effects are listed, usually rather fast with the disclaimer that these said side effects could potentially cause death.

What these commercials are not showing is the joint pain I wake up with daily and the low white blood cells I live with. The commercials fail to show how food doesn’t taste right anymore, even water tastes bad. The dark thoughts, fear of recurrence and having a treatment fail are left out. The picture that is painted in these advertisements is if you take these medications, you will live a long, normal life. My life and the lives of those affected by metastatic breast cancer is anything but normal. Too many of us are dying every day. What is being portrayed in these commercials is not reality for most and makes the general public perceive the disease as one that is chronic and survivable when this is more often not the case.

The metastatic community is grossly underrepresented.

With all the pink and the cheering for the survivors at the Making Strides Against Breast Cancer walk, there was no acknowledgment of advanced breast cancer. We are the forgotten and the left behind. It makes me sad and angry at the same time. Sad for anyone dealing with cancer and angry that we are portrayed in such an unrealistic way that the majority of people do not even understand what stage 4 means. We are failing. Until the general public understands what it means to have metastatic disease there will not be a cure. Many people have these medications fail within a very short amount of time. They do not live longer. They are not relentless. I’m talking to you, big pharma. Treatment is just that, it’s treatment. It’s not a cure. For the metastatic, treatment ends when treatments fail and there is nothing left for us but death. Actively living while dying is a difficult feat. I am thankful every day that my side effects are minimal, and my quality of life is good, yet for so many this is not the case. I realize these drug manufacturers are trying to sell a product but being bombarded by toxic positivity in advertising is misleading and not helpful. We can do better. I know we can.

For more news on cancer updates, research and education, don’t forget to subscribe to CURE®’s newsletters here.