Being Diagnosed with Metastatic Breast Cancer Isn’t a Choice, But How You Learn to Live with It Is

Being Diagnosed with Metastatic Breast Cancer Isn’t a Choice, But How You Learn to Live with It Is

Ari Berger, M.D., of Holy Name Medical Center’s Palliative Medicine Team

Anger, fear, stress, sadness, and depression. They are just a few of the emotions that accompany a metastatic breast cancer diagnosis.

“It’s overwhelming to say the least and there’s no right or wrong way to come to terms with it, but one thing is for sure, if you or someone you love has a serious or chronic illness, like metastatic breast cancer, schedule a visit with palliative care,” says Ari Berger, MD, a member of the palliative medicine team at Holy Name. “One of the things that makes metastatic breast cancer different from other advanced cancers is that patients can live for years after being diagnosed. Palliative care can be helpful to them during the entire time.”

One of the major goals of the palliative medicine team, he says, is to help patients have relief and support the entire time their cancer is being treated. The team also includes Richard Rosenbluth, MD, Co-Director of Palliative Care and Pain Management, and advanced practice nurse Debra Roditski, APN-C.

“Just because you are going through cancer treatments doesn’t mean you should be in pain or have poor quality of life,” says Dr. Berger. “We want you to have the best cancer treatment and the best pain relief. There is this misguided notion that if you are trying to cure your cancer then you have to ignore your quality of life, you have to ‘suffer through it.’ That is both wrong and foolish. As one major study demonstrated, patients with advanced lung cancer who received early palliative care had better pain and symptom relief and also lived significantly longer than those who didn’t.”

Metastatic breast cancer occurs when the cancer spreads from the breast to another part of the body, most commonly the liver, brain, bones, or lungs. Symptoms and treatment for this stage of breast cancer, also referred to as stage 4 breast cancer, are different from those of the earlier stages. Patients may experience a number of physical symptoms, such as pain, shortness of breath, confusion, nausea, anxiety, or insomnia.

“Although cancer treatment can help a person live longer and slow down the progression of the disease, treatment can also take its toll,” says Dr. Berger. “That’s where palliative care can make all the difference. We provide pain and symptom management. We also discuss personal preferences and goals.”

Palliative care appointments can be made on the same day as an oncology visit or cancer treatment. “Patients are juggling so much; we don’t want this to be another burden, so convenience is key,” he says. “We’ll sometimes sit with a patient while receiving a chemotherapy infusion to help optimize the time.”

Palliative care can also help patients come to terms with their advanced illness emotionally. “We get to know our patients. Our team is trained to address any and all questions about their current care and what to expect in the future,” says Dr. Berger.

End-of-life planning and decisions can be difficult under the best of circumstances. The palliative medicine team makes it a point to learn about the values and spiritual needs of each patient and her/his family to ensure clear communication and completion of advance directives, including a Living Will and Health Care Proxy forms.

“It’s not always easy for patients to express their thoughts or to make final decisions, but we’ve found that as they start to prepare, it can be therapeutic and ultimately provides peace of mind for all,” says Dr. Berger.

Although palliative care cannot cure the disease, it can help a patient live better, says Dr. Berger: “I’ve had so many patients say I wish I was referred to you sooner. Palliative care is about how you live, and we’re here to help you do just that.”

Palliative care is appropriate for patients of any age and any stage of illness. It is designed to complement a patient’s treatment plan. To speak to a member of Holy Name’s palliative medicine team, call 201-379-5610 or visit