Patients with advanced breast cancer (also known as metastatic breast cancer or Stage 4) and their supporters have been talking about their concerns regarding the reporting of Girls Aloud singer Sarah Harding’s recent diagnosis.
In a statement on Twitter, Sarah wrote:
There's no easy way to say this and actually it doesn't even feel real writing this, but here goes. Earlier this year I was diagnosed with breast cancer and a couple of weeks ago I received the devastating news that the cancer has advanced to other parts of my body.
I'm currently undergoing weekly chemotherapy sessions and I am fighting as hard as I possibly can.
Sarah’s breast cancer has spread beyond the breast and nearby lymph nodes to other parts of the body. When breast cancer is advanced, it usually means it has spread to the bones, lungs, liver or brain.
Unhelpful reporting about advanced breast cancer
Well-wishers have flocked to social media to tell her she can ‘beat this’, but as well-meaning as their words are, it hides the truth about advanced cancer, for which there is no cure, only treatment which aims to ease symptoms and hopefully extend life.
Author Marion Keyes commented on Twitter:
It’s awful news about Sarah Harding made worse by all this, “she's a fighter”, “she’ll beat this thing” etc, because that is not how cancer works. If ‘fighting’ worked everyone would recover. Instead it puts a heavy burden on poor people who are already very sick and very scared... the language used to convey goodwill is awful.
Other commentators have detected a judgemental tone to reporting. For example, the Mailonline appears to link her lifestyle to her diagnosis with this headline:
Britain’s most glamorous hell-raiser: How Girls Aloud’s ‘Hardcore Harding’ became famous for her wild-partying, explosive love affairs and stints in rehab – but now faces a battle against cancer.
Who develops advanced breast cancer?
Up to 1 in 3 people (usually, but not always women), with breast cancer will at some point develop metastatic breast cancer. This might be de novo, meaning metastatic disease is diagnosed at the same time as the original diagnosis. Or most often, it is diagnosed months or many years after treatment for primary breast cancer has finished.
The median survival for people diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer is 2-3 years, although around 1 in 10 women will survive over ten years.
One Twitter user Lydia Gard wrote:
Consistently surprised at how few people understand what #secondarybreastcancer is so here’s a crash course - top 2 things you need to know are.. it’s incurable & it’s woefully underfunded. #sarahharding #busylivingwithmets.
Others took issue with the idea that metastatic breast cancer can be caught by early detection. The BBC website published an article about Sarah Harding that gave the impression that metastatic breast cancer can be avoided by early detection and that it can be cured. The BBC wrote:
Many treatments are available for breast cancer and survival is generally good if the disease is detected early.
One Facebook user commented on this article:
BBC One news very disappointed by your lazy and inaccurate news reporting.
As I’ve been saying for the past 4 years. Early detection does NOT automatically mean a good survival rate, 1 in 3 early stage breast cancer diagnoses will metastasise. There are NOT lots of treatments for all breast cancer early stage or advanced.
Advanced breast cancer treatment is rationed
Sarah has said she is having treatment on the NHS. Activists in the metastatic cancer community are keen to highlight the disparities between private and NHS treatment. Within the NHS, treatment is rationed for metastatic breast cancer. Often, but not always, private health insurers will fund more drug lines than the NHS and have more flexibility in their treatment plans, which is important for management of the disease.
Breast cancer advocacy group METUP UK, which campaigns for better treatment for everyone who has metastatic breast cancer, have noted a rise in private fundraisers for drugs, which may not be as easy to access on the NHS.
How can you spot advanced breast cancer?
The signs and symptoms of metastatic breast cancer can be non-specific and mimic other conditions. According to Breast Cancer Now, the charity for patients with metastatic breast cancer, patients with a history of primary breast cancer should seek medical advice if they experience any of the following persistent symptoms. Oncologists define persistent as being for two weeks.
- unexpected weight loss or loss of appetite
- discomfort or swelling under the ribs or across the upper abdomen
- severe or ongoing headaches
- altered vision or speech
- feeling sick most of the time
- breathlessness or a dry cough
- loss of balance or weakness or numbness of the limbs
- any lumps or swellings under the arm, breastbone or collarbone
- pain in the bones (e.g. back, hips and ribs)