Some patients can live for years, and even decades, after breast cancer has spread to their bones and other tissues.

A new international study is looking for patients with metastatic breast cancer in hopes of unlocking the secrets of their survival. Mark Burkard, MD, PhD, a breast cancer oncologist at the University of Wisconsin Carbone Cancer Center, was inspired by patients who have lived as long as 40 years after diagnosis.

"How do these exceptional patients survive so long with incurable cancer? We’re hoping the answers can help more people live better and longer with cancer," Burkard says.

Burkard began by studying women who are UW Carbone patients, and with funding from AVON 39, and local breast cancer charities, is expanding internationally in hopes of identifying additional "extreme survivors" to the study.

Women and men with metastatic breast cancer can first take a survey to determine their eligibility. It is not necessary to be a long-term survivor to take the survey. Next, those eligible will take a longer survey about their medical history and lifestyle, and diet, which could impact outcomes. Patients with the longest survival will be invited to the second part of the study, which will involve studying their genes, and those in their cancer.

Burkard hopes to learn whether:

  • these cancers are genetically distinct from others
  • the immune system of these survivors is different
  • or the treatments or behaviors of these individuals are distinctive

Burkard hopes the answers will help future patients and their physicians develop plans to maximize the opportunity for long-survival. In addition, the genetic tests may uncover genes that predict a slow-growing type of cancer, allowing those with those genes to have fewer treatments.