Living Well with Chronic Breast Cancer

Duncan Finigan isn’t fond of the phrase “stage IV.”

“I choose to call it treatable, non-curable cancer, or a chronic disease,” the mom of four says. Following a physical exam by a new gynecologist last October, Finigan expedited her December mammogram, which ultimately led to an MRI, ultrasound, and a diagnosis of stage IV breast cancer.

Duncan and her husband snowshoeing.
Duncan and her husband snowshoeing.

“When I saw a surgeon, radiologist, and oncologist at Dana-Farber’s South Shore location, that’s when I learned my cancer had spread to my bones; I was now classified as stage IV and not a candidate for surgery, radiation, or standard chemotherapy,” she recalls. The strategy instead was to stop her disease from spreading further, which lead her to Eric Winer, MD, director of Breast Oncology in Dana-Farber’s Susan F. Smith Center for Women’s Cancers.

During her first meeting with Winer, her nurse practitioner, and her clinical trial nurses, Winer told Finigan that she didn’t have to classify herself as stage IV; her disease was chronic, just like diabetes. “My husband and I looked at each other and just smiled,” she recalls. “It was like the weight of the world was off my shoulders. I now knew how to talk to people about my cancer, especially my four boys.”

Winer also helped Finigan understand that her feelings about her diagnosis came first, Finigan says.

“He reassured me that I shouldn’t be consoling others more than they’re consoling me. It felt really powerful.”

Most importantly, she says, Winer told her that she would live many years: “He told me, ‘we have solutions to fight your cancer, and when those stop working, don’t worry – I’ll have another solution for you.’” Finigan is currently being treated with two oral drugs: Letrozole, to block estrogen from producing, and the drug ribociclib through a clinical trial.

“Dr. Winer told me my job was to trust Dana-Farber and go live my life fully,” she says. “My team doesn’t just administer drugs; they care about me as a person.”

Duncan's four sons.
Duncan’s four sons.

Six months into her treatment, Finigan stays positive through spirituality, diet and exercise, and with the support of her care team. She is helping others with chronic breast cancer by raising funds for Dana-Farber through her company, Oofos; participating in the two-day Avon Walk for Breast Cancer; riding the Pan-Mass Challenge alongside her son, brother, and Winer; and by sharing her story.

“Hopefully, with continued research support, every woman with stage IV cancer will be able to go into her first appointment and be told she has many, many years to live.”

Finigan recently shared her story with Dana-Farber physician-scientists and women’s cancers supporters at the Susan F. Smith Center Executive Council Breakfast. Watch her full story below:

Duncan Finigan passed away peacefully surrounded by her family in 2019.

5 thoughts on “Living Well with Chronic Breast Cancer”

  1. I so agree with Duncan’s wish to treat MBC as a chronic disease.
    My doctors told me the same thing when I was diagnosed with bone mets last year.
    It is treatable, although not curable, and I can live with it. And that is what I am doing, living my life!

  2. I’m trying to understand what this post means. I assume you aren’t really saying that ER+ metastatic breast cancer patients now reliably survive this disease or that Dana Farber has treatments, at least for ER+ patients, that somehow have been denied to those with the same disease who we’ve recently lost. Maybe I’m missing the hyperbole, and goodness knows hope is a wonderful thing and I sincerely wish Duncan a long and happy life, but as much as I’d love to believe that this disease is truly a long-term chronic one, right now it still seems that wonderful women continue to be lost to ER+ metastatic breast cancer way before their time.

  3. I really hope Duncan has many years of productive life ahead. However, I think the article and the video paint a too rosy picture of treatments for metastatic breast cancer and prognosis both in terms of length of survival and quality of life. I don’t think we have reached a point when MBC can in fact be considered a chronic manageable disease.

  4. I agree, when life expectancy is still around 3 years, calling it chronic is misleading. And hope is wonderful as we truly can not live without it. We all hope to be one of the few that beats those odds.

  5. As someone with Stage IV Bladder Cancer, I am joining Duncan in defining my cancer as chronic.

    Yes, the reality for most people is that life expectancy with this type of cancer is not long, but for those of us who are responding to treatment not calling it chronic is misleading.

    Redefining our cancers as chronic shifts the way others view us from giving pity to treating us as people with hope looking towards the future.

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