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Helping women live well with secondary breast cancer

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Catherine Priestley

Clinical Nurse Specialist, Breast Cancer Care and Breast Cancer Now

Providing women living with secondary breast cancer the support they need today and funding vital research to stop breast cancer spreading and to treat it effectively when it does.

While more people than ever are surviving breast cancer, there are around 35,000 people in the UK living with secondary breast cancer, which is incurable.

Secondary (or metastatic) breast cancer occurs when the cancer spreads from the breast to other parts of the body, most commonly to the bones, lungs, liver or brain.

While it cannot be cured, there are treatments that can control certain forms of the disease for some time and relieve symptoms to help people live well for as long as possible.

Support to help patients live well

The uncertainty of living with an incurable disease can be one of the hardest parts, and a diagnosis of secondary breast cancer can affect every area of people’s lives, including work, finances, family and their emotional and physical wellbeing.

We urgently need to develop new therapies to stop the disease spreading and to treat it effectively when it does.

With the right care and support, people can feel less alone and more confident in making decisions about complex treatment options, their lifestyle and their care.

This is why we run our Living with Secondary Breast Cancer events, to enable women to talk openly with others living with the disease and to hear from expert speakers providing specialist information.

Bringing nurses together

We also work with secondary breast cancer nurses across the UK to create a network of experts to share best practice and support them to deliver the best possible care.

We’ve developed a digital toolkit of practical guidance and resources to help nursing teams set up support services that help address the unique needs of people living with secondary breast cancer.

It’s really encouraging that many hospitals are already striving to improve their support services for secondary breast cancer patients, but it’s vital we all work together to reduce variation across the country and ensure everyone receives the highest standards of care.

Developments in research

If we are to finally stop more women dying from breast cancer, we urgently need to develop new therapies to stop the disease spreading and to treat it effectively when it does.

Professor Clare Isacke at the Breast Cancer Now Toby Robins Research Centre at The Institute of Cancer Research, London is investigating how breast cancer cells interact with their surroundings to enable them to spread around the body.

Ultimately, her team want to identify new targets for therapy, as well as find ways to prevent secondary breast cancer.

It’s currently incredibly challenging to treat breast cancer that has spread to the brain, as its security system stops many drugs reaching it.

So we’re also funding Professor Leonie Young’s research at the Royal College of Surgeons in Dublin, to understand whether drugs that block a protein called RET could help treat secondary tumours in the brain.

Already, we’ve seen the introduction of a new generation of medicines called CDK 4/6 inhibitors to NHS treatment, which can help slow the spread of the disease for some patients and help them to continue with daily life. But we need to invest in research to develop new options for all sub-types of the disease.

With around 11,500 women and 80 men losing their lives to the disease each year in the UK, there is so much more to do on secondary breast cancer. We will continue to work tirelessly to reach our vision that, by 2050, everyone diagnosed with breast cancer will live and be supported to live well.

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