An avid tennis player and gym-goer, Princess Wilkes, a former news segment producer, stays fit and keeps busy by taking walks with her friends, keeping her yard in pristine shape and participating in background acting in her adopted home of Atlanta, where the entertainment industry thrives. She is among the more than 3.8 million Americans diagnosed with breast cancer, and of those, approximately 155,000 are living with metastatic breast cancer.
In 2006, Princess was originally diagnosed with Stage 1B breast cancer. Two years later, she visited her doctor for a routine check-up and received news she wasn’t anticipating: Her cancer had returned—this time in a metastatic form.
This year, an estimated 284,200 people (281,550 women and 2,650 men) in the United States will be diagnosed with invasive breast cancer. That means that one in eight American women will be diagnosed with early breast cancer, and of those, approximately 30 percent will experience disease progression and develop metastatic cancer. While metastatic breast cancer is considered incurable—meaning that once people are diagnosed, they have it for the rest of their life—it may be treated.
Although breast cancer is more common in white women, the death rate was 40% higher in Black women.
“I got together with my care team, and we knew we had to put together an aggressive treatment plan,” Princess recalls. “All I knew then was I was going to do whatever I could to get my body prepared for what was about to come.”
Thanks to ongoing scientific research, the development of treatments targeting certain biomarkers and genetic mutations, which are known to have a role in the development of cancer, has significantly changed the way certain patients with metastatic breast cancer can be treated.
Just as each patient has a unique personality, so does each tumor. Some tumors are driven by unique sets of alterations, often called biomarkers (think of them as a “thumbprint” of a tumor.)
Biomarkers, which include proteins, genes or other molecules that impact how cells grow and multiply, can be detected by testing a sample of a tumor or blood. They can indicate an underlying condition or disease. In cancer, biomarkers can also help identify therapies to which a particular patient’s tumor may or may not respond. Common biomarkers in breast cancer are hormone receptors (whether the cancer is driven by the hormones estrogen or progesterone) and human epidermal growth factor receptor 2 (HER2).
HER2 is a protein found on the surface of cells associated with tumor growth. Approximately one in five people diagnosed with breast cancer is HER2-positive, which means cancer cells may grow and spread faster than other types of breast cancers. “When I found out I was HER2-positive, I learned as much as I could about it because the more knowledge you have, the better,” Princess shares. “I try to self-advocate so that I can ask questions and make decisions with my oncologist.”
During this Breast Cancer Awareness Month, Princess’ story is a reminder of the importance of understanding a cancer diagnosis and options for biomarker testing and treatment.
“You have to find a medical team that you’re comfortable with and can say anything to, even something embarrassing,” notes Princess. “You feel like they’re almost part of your family.”
Having a strong network of family and friends to lean on can make a big difference when it comes to dealing with metastatic breast cancer. One of Princess’ sources for community support is Beyond Pink, sponsored by AstraZeneca. That’s where she’s been telling her story and sharing her life with other metastatic breast cancer patients.
“Support for metastatic breast cancer patients is different because we are dealing with this for the rest of our lives,” she says. “Don’t keep things to yourself—share with your family and friends because you’ll be surprised how their support will help you. I’ve always known my family is with me no matter what.”
“Though there are days when you feel that you can’t get out of bed, the next day you get up,” she adds. “Make long-term goals but also live in the now, live your life and do the things you can do. There is nothing to stop you from living your life the best you can.”
To learn more about metastatic breast cancer and get support, visit LifeBeyondPink.com.