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Metastatic Breast Cancer Day: Living With Breast Cancer That Cannot Be Cured

Tomorrow, 13 October, is Metastatic Breast Cancer Day – a chance to raise awareness of incurable, metastatic breast cancer in New Zealand. Most importantly, it is a day to honour the courage of the hundreds of New Zealanders who are currently living with a diagnosis of metastatic breast cancer.

Each year, about 3000 women in New Zealand are diagnosed with breast cancer, and up to 400 women are diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer. Metastatic breast cancer is a cancer that has spread beyond the breast to other parts of the body. At this point, the cancer can’t be cured. But thanks to improved treatments available in New Zealand, many women can live for a long time.

Sweet Louise is the only charity in New Zealand dedicated to supporting women living with incurable, metastatic breast cancer.

“The needs of those facing a diagnosis of metastatic breast cancer are very different from women experiencing primary breast cancer,” says Catrin Devonald, CEO of Sweet Louise.

“Metastatic breast cancer cannot be cured, yet often it can be controlled with treatment, sometimes for many years. But the impact of ongoing treatment can be enormous, from financial impacts such as having to give up work, to severe fatigue, to the ongoing anxiety of not knowing how long you might have left with your loved ones.

“Right now, we are very worried that the Covid-19 situation is compounding feelings of anxiety and fear for New Zealanders with metastatic breast cancer. Women with compromised immunity are concerned about how effective the vaccine might be for them. For others, being in lockdown or being advised by your doctor to shield at home even in level 2 areas of the country is a huge burden when you know your time with loved ones is limited.”

Metastatic breast cancer affects younger women too – around 50% of the women supported by Sweet Louise are under the age of 59 and many of them have children under 18 years of age.

“For women with metastatic breast cancer, the narrative of ‘winning the battle’ or ‘breast cancer survivor’ doesn’t fit,” adds Catrin Devonald. “This is a fight they can’t win. But their incredible courage and determination to make the most of the time they have, to be there for their children and families, is truly humbling.”

Lynne, an Auckland woman supported by Sweet Louise, has lived with incurable, metastatic breast cancer for 13 years. Lynne says: “I have never been clear of the cancer. But ongoing treatment keeps it at bay. Throughout it all I have dealt with side effects, feelings of exhaustion, anxiety, and fear. Sometimes I feel fed up with it all – but mostly I try to stay upbeat.”

“Recently I met a woman at a Sweet Louise support meeting who was newly diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer. When I told her I had lived with my cancer for 13 years, she really changed. She smiled. She had hope.”

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