One day when Amy Plouffe was at work, she felt a sharp pain on the left side of her body.
“The side of my rib cage down to my hip and my leg was very, very sore. It felt like I pulled a muscle or something,” Plouffe said from her home in Bloomfield, New York.
Her doctor gave her a prescription to treat a pulled nerve, but it didn’t help. And then, a couple of days later, she felt something in her right breast.
“It felt like a baseball was in my breast. That’s what it felt like, it felt like a big baseball,” Plouffe said.
She had a mammogram and a biopsy done, which confirmed she had breast cancer. But Plouffe was also struggling just to sit up and lay down. The doctor had her go for an MRI.
“(She) called my mom and I into an office and we sat down. I wasn’t expecting her to say that the cancer spread to your spine,” Plouffe said.
Plouffe was 36 at the time. She had stage four breast cancer, also known as metastatic -- meaning the cancer spread to other parts of her body. Plouffe said that in that moment, there was only one thing on her mind.
“I’m not going to be able to see my son graduate or just be able to be there for him. I was thinking I only had six months,” Plouffe said.
But that was a year and a half ago.
Across the country, more and more women are living with the most serious form of breast cancer. Plouffe is one of 155,000 women in the U.S. living with metastatic breast cancer. A new study from the National Cancer Institute found that, since the 1990s, the amount of cases has been increasing -- but so has survival time.
“Part of it is related to the aging of the population and then more women being diagnosed with breast cancer and metastatic breast cancer,” said Dr. Angela Mariotto, chief of data analytics with the National Cancer Institute.
In some ways, the study challenges the idea that stage four breast cancer is an imminent death sentence -- even though it is an incurable disease. Mariotto and her team estimate that since the 1990s, a five-year survival rate has doubled. It’s gone from 18 percent to 36 percent.
“Part of the improvements in survival may be also associated with early detection due, for example, to increasing availability of better imaging techniques,” Mariotto said.
Dr. Marcia Krebs, an oncologist at the University of Rochester Medical Center’s Pluta Cancer Center, treated Plouffe after diagnosis. She said even though some women do respond well to treatment, stage four is considered terminal.
“Some of the first conversations you have is that this is incurable. We have to look at treatment as more of a control for the disease,” Krebs said.
Krebs recommended surgery to Plouffe, but a second opinion challenged that.
“They were like, ‘You’re crazy, you can’t do this,’ ” Krebs recalled.
For advanced cases, Krebs said, surgery isn’t standard because the cancer isn’t contained to one place in the body.
“And then to be able to try to understand, ‘How can one doctor tell me this and you’re telling me this?’ I think there was this question of who do you trust?” Krebs said.
Plouffe ended up getting a double mastectomy. And today, she’s stable. She still has spots on her spine, but, she said, they’ve shrunk.
“Now I’m just trying to get my strength back and just try to enjoy every day possible with my family as much as I can,” Plouffe said.