Allie Vreeland doesn’t have a typical day. Sometimes she goes to work. Sometimes she stays home and watches TV all day. She decides when she wakes up, and she answers to no one but herself — and her treatment plan.
“Every day is a new adventure, basically,” Vreeland says with a laugh. If not for that ever-changing, unpredictable treatment plan, you might think Vreeland has a dream life for a 29-year-old woman living in New York City. (Who doesn’t wake up for work sometimes and yearn to stay in bed a little longer?)
But two years ago, Vreeland got the kind of news no one wants to hear: She was diagnosed with breast cancer. Then, following a mastectomy and a year of chemotherapy, radiation, and reconstruction, she found out the cancer had spread to her liver, making her one of the roughly 30% of women diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer to go on to develop metastatic, or stage IV, breast cancer.
Now, like an estimated 150,000 other women living with stage IV in the U.S., Vreeland lives at the mercy of her unpredictable disease. The median survival for metastatic breast cancer is just 3 years, which means that half of the people diagnosed will be gone within this short period of time. While others, depending on various factors — genetic markers, the ability to withstand treatments, and, frankly, luck — may live with the disease for much longer than that, there is no cure, no end to treatment, and no sure way of knowing which side of that statistic you'll land on.
Stage IV breast cancer is responsible for virtually all breast-cancer deaths, and yet, while we practically drown in pink ribbons and breast-cancer awareness year after year, 61% of Americans say they know little to nothing about metastatic breast cancer, according to a recent survey.
All month long this October, Refinery29, in partnership with #Cancerland, has been bringing you these women's stories, in an effort to change the conversation about breast cancer. We've talked about how only about 2% of the money raised for breast cancer research goes toward metastatic disease, and we followed stage-IV activists to D.C. as they lobbied congress to change that. But as October comes to an end, we want to turn to the daily, lived experiences of these women: What is it really like to live with a disease that everyone seems to have heard of, but no one really understands?
Ahead, in a series of vulnerable photos and interviews about their symptoms and side effects — but also about their hopes for the future and how they take care of themselves — three young women living with metastatic breast cancer explain it in their own words.