Legendary novelist Jackie Collins kept a busy schedule, wrote books, and managed to keep her breast cancer a secret until just days before she died over the weekend. That reality spotlights the fact that new treatments are allowing more women to live longer and better than ever before with the deadly disease, a top expert says.
The bestselling British writer died Saturday at the age of 77 from the advanced metastatic breast cancer she was diagnosed with 6.5 years ago.
“Jackie Collins is proof of what we say when we term metastatic breast cancer a ‘chronic illness,’ “Neil B. Friedman, M.D., a noted breast cancer surgeon, tells Newsmax Health.
“We know there is no hope for a cure, but women are living longer with metastatic breast cancer, and they are also feeling well, with much fewer side effects from treatment,” says Dr. Friedman, director of the Hoffberger Breast Center at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore.
Remarkable as it seems, Collins made a 10, 0000-mile round trip from Beverly Hills to London appearing on the TV show “Loose Women,” just nine days before her death. On the show, she appeared vibrant and in good health, promoting her book, “The Stantangelos,” and eagerly talking about her future plans.
Her diagnosis became public only after her death, as well as the fact that she’d told only her children, and kept her illness hidden from her sister, actress Joan Collins, until just two weeks ago. The two sisters were extremely close.
According to Dr. Friedman, Collins was unusual in that, when her breast cancer was diagnosed, it was already stage 4, which is the most advanced type of the disease. “Only about 4 percent of U.S. women are diagnosed at stage 4,” he says.
According to the American Cancer Society, only 22 percent of women survive five years after being diagnosed with such an advanced stage of cancer.
Metastatic breast cancer has spread beyond the breast and axillary lymph nodes (those under the arms) to other parts of the body. When it reaches this stage, it is treatable, but no longer curable.
Although it isn’t known why Collins’ breast cancer was diagnosed so late, the new treatments for metastatic breast cancer that have been approved in only the last 10 years or so provided her with a huge advantage over patients who dealt with advanced disease a decade ago or more, Dr. Friedman notes.
“Several years ago, women with stage 4 breast cancer died within five years, and they were sicker. There were fewer drugs, and they were sicker, because the side effects from chemotherapy were worse,” he explains.
About 37 percent of women with metastatic breast cancer live at least three years and 15 percent live five or more years after diagnosis, with some living 10-20 years, current statistics say.
Until recently, the problem with metastatic cancer was that the drugs and other treatments designed to combat it eventually stopped working. But now there are several new drugs that can extend remission periods, Dr. Friedman notes.
Just how long the disease can be stalled depends on the type of breast cancer involved, he says.
Although Dr. Friedman never treated Collins and does not know the details of her case, from the amount of time she was able to live and function well, it appears that her cancer may have been a type known as “HER2/neu-negative” breast cancer – a variety for which several new therapies have been developed.
Among the most recent is a drug known as everolimus (Afinitor), a so-called mTOR inhibitor hormone approved in 2012. It is a type of targeted therapy that makes hormone therapy, one of the mainstays of treatment for this form of the disease, more effective, he says.
“When new drugs come out, they may extend survival for six months, but when these drugs can be used consecutively, these months can extend to three years, five years, or even more, which can be lived in relatively good health, and who wouldn’t want that?” Dr. Friedman notes.
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