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Metastatic Breast Cancer: What Pink Doesn’t Cover

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Heather Millar - Blogs
By Heather MillarAward-winning writerOctober 09, 2015
From the WebMD Archives

Kelli Parker was flying on business the first week of October when she saw a flight attendant wearing a pink smock and a pink bracelet that said, “Early detection saves lives.” The attendant was offering pink martinis and pink lemonade in honor of breast cancer awareness month.

The flight attendant was probably just carrying out an “everything pink” marketing campaign dreamed up by the airline, but she most certainly had good intentions. So Parker grabbed a moment with her to make her aware that there’s a perspective that the pink campaigns often seem to gloss over.

Parker, 33, is a wife, mother, and has a successful career at Wal-Mart headquarters. She also has metastatic breast cancer. Though her cancer isn’t currently progressing, she knows that, for her, there is no cure.

She’s made it one of her missions to point out that early detection isn’t the cure-all that popular culture would have us believe. Sometimes, of course, early detection does save lives. So far, I think it saved mine: My cancer was nasty, but caught early. I’m five years out, fingers crossed.

That’s the story we all want to hear.

But Parker has dedicated herself to telling a more disturbing story: Her cancer, too, was caught early, when it was Stage I. But five years out, she was diagnosed with metastatic disease. Her body may hold the cancer at bay for a few more years. She may even become an outlier: A few women with metastatic breast cancer do survive longer than 10 years, a very few might even live 14 years, or 17 years. But one thing is for sure: Parker will eventually die of the disease.

That is NOT the story we all want to hear.

Here’s the problem: Some breast cancers, even if caught early, may never go on to cause symptoms. So if the women with those less threatening cancers go on to have surgery, radiation and chemo, was all that unpleasant treatment necessary? Other breast cancers, even if caught early, go rogue and spread uncontrollably. In some cases, it seems that no matter what the docs throw at it, the cancer just keeps on coming. So would finding this terrible sort of cancer early really change the outcome?

Here’s the big question: How do you tell the difference between the non-threatening cancers and the crazed killer cancers? And the short answer is: We don’t know yet, though we’re working on it.

Researchers are finding that there are many kinds of breast cancer, and that catching it early is not a “Get out of jail free” card. It’s a complicated issue, one that I’ve written about here and for many magazines. You can also see a good, in-depth write up in the current issue of Mother Jones, and another older piece, in The New York Times Magazine.

So if “catching it early” isn’t the whole solution, why do we spend every October pinning pink ribbons on everything in sight?

“Money spent on awareness is wasted. Raise your hand if know what breast cancer is. We’ve definitely achieved awareness and that’s a good thing,” Parker explains. “What people don’t know is that 111 American women die each day from metastatic breast cancer. It’s shrouded in secrecy. People don’t want to talk about it.”

By the way, that 111 per day translates to more than 40,000 Americans, and more than half a million worldwide, killed each year by metastatic breast cancer. Yet, only 7% of the $15 billion invested in breast cancer research from 2000-2013 by the major government and non-profit funders in the US and the UK was spent on metastatic-focused research, according to the Metastatic Breast Cancer Network. There are differences about the statistics, and some organizations put the figure as low as 2 percent.

Parker, along with organizations like Metavivor, the Metastatic Breast Cancer Network and the Metastatic Breast Cancer Alliance, want to change these numbers. They want to see more funding for research into metastatic disease. Check out the conversation on Twitter with these hashtags: #iamsusan, #dontignorestageiv, #stageivneedsmore, #bckills, #pinkisnotacure.

This point of view makes sense to me. In breast cancer, as in all cancers, it’s metastatic disease that kills. We need to look at the faces of those with metastatic breast cancer. We need to support them. We need to advocate for them. That’s what Kelli Parker told the pink-bedecked flight attendant.

“Her eyes widened – she had no idea. I gave her an “Ask me about MBC” pin which she promptly put on her lapel,” Parker wrote about the exchange on Facebook. “One person at a time, everyone. That’s how our revolution begins.”

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About the Author
Heather Millar

Heather Millar is an award-winning freelance magazine writer and author with wide-ranging interests including health, science, the environment, geopolitics, technology, parenting, and Asian affairs. 

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