Secondary breast cancer: a new way of living
Jo Taylor’s situation is something of a double-edged sword. She relies on continuous treatment for secondary breast cancer to maintain a good quality of life, but she doesn’t want that treatment to take over her life.
“I was diagnosed with HER2+ primary breast cancer in 2007 and I was re-diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer in 2014,” she explains to This Is MedTech. “I knew that I had a risk of developing it but still, it was a shock. I had no symptoms and wouldn’t have found the lumps in my neck if it wasn’t for a friend finding a lump in her neck, which then made me check my neck lymph nodes.”
Secondary breast cancer, also called metastatic breast cancer (MBC), means that the initial cancer has spread (metastasised) to other parts of the body. According to METUPUK, the charity that Jo founded after her second diagnosis, up to 30% of people with breast cancer in the UK will go on to develop MBC. Currently, it’s incurable and a person’s average life span after diagnosis is 2-3 years.
Jo has been supported by medtech throughout her MBC journey. After finding the new lumps, she had a biopsy, a procedure where a needle was used to take small samples of her lymph node tissue to be examined under a microscope. This confirmed her MBC diagnosis.
“It took a while to adjust to this new way of living,” she notes. “It’s strange, as when you have primary breast cancer you can’t wait to finish treatment and get through everything that is thrown at you – surgery, chemotherapy, radiotherapy, etc. But when you develop MBC, the only thing you want to do is to have treatment. It’s the only way you survive.”
Jo wants to live her life and finds it challenging not to be defined by the treatment. Over the past seven years since her MBC diagnosis, she’s had 10 surgeries and completed 111 thrice-weekly treatment cycles.
She credits her survival to being aware of changes in her body and getting any issues checked out quickly, in addition to having regular computed tomography (CT) scans and blood tests. The CT scans give doctors detailed internal images of her body, while the blood tests can detect levels of a protein that indicates cancer cell growth.
“I have a great caring and supportive oncologist. I had no symptoms, but he sent me for an incidental brain MRI, which then identified a small lesion to my brain.” MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) creates three-dimensional images of soft tissues and is often used to determine whether a person’s cancer has spread.
After the MRI, Jo had targeted stereotactic radiosurgery, a non-surgical radiation therapy used to treat small brain tumours. Two months later, in July 2020, she had the lymph nodes under her left arm removed. Nevertheless, she says she’s still “#BusyLivingWithMets and surviving with a decent quality of life”.
As for Jo’s advocacy work, she can’t emphasise enough how important it is for empowering and supporting patients. “Our charity is striving to help make this incurable disease into a chronic disease that people live with and can manage.”