Five percent of women diagnosed with breast cancer have metastatic disease, but survival rates are climbing. According to the Breast Cancer Research Foundation, the number of women living with metastatic breast cancer rose to 168,000 last year from 155,000 the year before. New breakthroughs keep women alive longer while researchers race to find the next therapy that will work.
Sandy Cassanelli was 37 with two daughters in elementary school when she got her first breast cancer diagnosis. She underwent surgery, chemotherapy and 28 days of radiation, and the cancer was gone for two years.
“My breast cancer had metastasized to my liver, and I was now stage four, no cure, metastatic breast cancer,” Cassanelli said.
That began an eight-year cancer journey that continues to this day. Some of the new treatments she has tried kept her disease controlled for as long as three years. Others, mere months.
“I am currently on my eleventh line of treatment,” Cassanelli said.
“We’ve run into many people that have said, ‘Oh, thank goodness you have breast cancer, because we heard that’s easy to get over, or easy to cure, or easy to treat,’” said Craig Cassanelli, Sandy’s husband. “It’s like, that’s so far from reality.”
Dr. Eric Winer is an internationally recognized breast cancer expert, director of the Yale Cancer Center. He says women need to know they can now live for years in spite of metastatic breast cancer.
“We understand the genes that drive the behavior of the cancer in many situations,” Winer said. “What that lets us do is, that allows us to pair the clinical trial, the specific clinical trial with this specific patient.”
“You know, right now, we have treatments,” Craig Cassanelli said. “That’s great, but we want a cure. We want the home run.”
Sandy Cassanelli is currently on an experimental treatment that is, for now, shrinking her tumors.
“We are just happy that, finally, something is working,” Sandy said.
The Cassanellis say if, or when, this treatment stops working, they are optimistic that scientists will have found the next therapy they can try.
“Being both somewhat realistic and very hopeful is a really nice mix,” Winer said.
Winer says it’s important to note that metastatic breast cancer patients have much better responses to early-phase clinical trials than in the past. For example, phase-one trials traditionally test drug safety, but now, research has allowed oncologists to find treatments in phase-one trials that are tailored to each individual.