Metastatic breast cancer: How we can change the odds

As we recognize Breast Cancer Awareness Month, we should place special focus on the leading killer among women aged 20-59: metastatic breast cancer.

The good news is this sort of cancer is getting increased attention and funding, and with technology delivering us more sophisticated tools to fight it, there's a very real possibility it will be cured in this century.

It's helpful to take a bit of time to learn about the disease, understand the availability of clinical trials as an option and make yourself familiar with the good news on funding, which is now available both from federal sources as well as sources in Texas.

Until 2009, metastatic breast cancer was rarely mentioned during Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Nine determined patients traveled to Washington, D.C., that summer to see if they could change that, and they did: Both houses of Congress passed a unanimous resolution to dedicate a day — Oct. 13 — to putting patients and their needs in front of the public.

Cancer that remains in the breast can be cured in most cases. Metastasis occurs when cancer cells travel to vital organs. Right now, the disease is treatable, but not curable. An estimated 155,000 Americans are currently living with metastatic breast cancer, and it accounts for over 40,000 deaths annually.

Perhaps most damaging to progress is that very few patients participate in clinical trials — treatment studies on new therapies that help build a case for FDA approval. The advantage of participating in a clinical trial is patients might get access to a lifesaving drug years before the general public does. One estimate is that less than 5 percent of patients with metastatic breast cancer are in a clinical trial. Much more needs to be done to improve awareness about and access to clinical trials. Many patients are simply unaware that participating in a clinical trial might be an option.

From the patient's perspective, clinical research is a difficult world to navigate — but in the setting of an incurable disease, it is absolutely critical. There are several resources, such as the Metastatic Breast Cancer Alliance, available to help patients and families learn more about clinical research, find support services and navigate the system.

Recent research into breast cancer has been extensive and remarkable. However, current treatments can be arduous, the standard of care is not well established and treatment is not matched to individual cancers. In other words, precision medicine in metastatic breast cancer still has room to improve.

With the launch of the Cancer Moonshot program by the White House earlier this year, greater attention has been brought in the need to support cancer research. This means real funding —although exactly how much has yet to be determined. Here in Texas, the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, which was founded in 2007, focuses on expediting cancer research enhancing potential for breakthroughs that can lead to a cure. The state of Texas issued $3 billion in bonds to the institute to fund study for a cure. The institute also recruits some of the top clinicians and scientists to work at cancer centers, such as Baylor College of Medicine, MD Anderson and UT Southwestern with multiple focusing on metastatic breast cancer.

My mother, Theresa Newby Harpole, was an early-stage breast cancer survivor that battled metastatic breast cancer for over three and a half years before passing away Thanksgiving Day 2013. Together, we established Theresa's Research Foundation with a mission to solely fund metastatic breast cancer research and improve the quality of lives of those impacted by this disease.

With collaboration from scientists, oncologists, advocates, industry leaders and patients, together, we can accelerate metastatic breast cancer research with a goal of extending lives, improving quality of life, and providing better treatment options for patients. Emphasizing the critical need for more research funding, participation and awareness of clinical research trials in order to change the odds and cure metastatic breast cancer hopefully in my lifetime.

Josh Newby

Founder and executive director, Theresa Harpole Foundation for Metastatic Breast Cancer