So often in the course of a breast cancer patient’s journey, hope can seem fleeting and they rely on the incalculable power of the mind to see them through. 

The latest iteration of the six-year-old #ThisIsMBC initiative developed by METAvivor and Eisai is “Imagine,” calling upon its audience to tap into their inner mental creativity in the fight against breast cancer.

Patients are first encouraged to imagine the harsh reality of receiving a metastatic breast cancer (MBC) diagnosis as well as the isolation and fear that follow. Then, they’re prompted to imagine finding a community of women who have also received the same diagnosis, who happily share their stories of living and thriving despite MBC. 

The heart of the campaign, which was unveiled during the San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium (SABCS) at the beginning of this month, consists of images and interviews with 12 people living with MBC. Their profiles will be added to the website, which already includes previous #ThisIsMBC campaigns and other resources, on January 1.

“The goal of #ThisIsMBC, and we’re in our sixth year, is to encourage people with metastatic breast cancer and their loved ones and their community to share their experiences, their fears, their hopes and their joys, using #ThisIsMBC,” says Teresa Cronin, VP of corporate communications and patient advocacy at Eisai. 

For Jamil Rivers, president of METAvivor, the campaign is a personal cause, too. 

“Living with metastatic breast cancer and also having the honor of being a part of the campaign, I see it as enriching and community building,” she says. “That’s our intent for this particular community, which for such a long time, has had their needs overlooked. This campaign amplifies the message, not just the need that’s out there but also so [people living with MBC] are seen and recognized as well.” 

The isolation felt by some people with MBC is not only a reflection of the distance between them and people who are cancer-free but also the one that exists with other breast cancer patients. 

The “metastatic” in MBC refers to cancer that has reached stage four or beyond. In the United States, six to 10% of women who receive breast-cancer diagnoses have MBC at the time of their first diagnosis. Breast cancer can become metastatic in roughly 30% of patients in developed nations.

“We don’t see ourselves in the ‘pink party’ around breast cancer month,” Rivers continues. “But luckily through campaigns like this, people are starting to understand what MBC is and the reason why there’s so much research needed.”

The testimonial approach of both “Imagine” and the larger #ThisIsMBC initiative is a common one in educational and awareness campaigns, but Beth Fairchild, cofounder and co-director at #CancerCulture, sees a difference in how #ThisIsMBC approaches them. 

“Our storytelling is authentic. It’s real, it’s raw and we don’t sugarcoat any of the patient experiences,” she says. “When you see a lot of breast cancer stories, they are generally the celebratory survivor stories — ‘Hey, I made it, I’ve beat this thing’ — and that’s not where we’re coming from. Every patient that participates in the #ThisIsMBC campaign has a terminal diagnosis so it’s a much different story to tell. Even though we’re able to tell it in a very empowering and inspiring way, it’s heavy and eye-opening for the people who are watching. That is what sets our storytelling apart — it’s the good, the bad, and the ugly. We tell the true story.”

Rivers also sees the blunt talk of the participants in the campaign as something that distinguishes them and gives them their power. 

“They can talk about death and dying. There’s dark humor and they all get it,” she says. “They come from all different walks of life, all different ethnicities, backgrounds, but as soon as they walk through the door, they are bonded over their shared diagnosis.”

Among the most striking features of the “Imagine” campaign are the portraits, with the 12 people living with MBC photographed outdoors, sitting next to waterfalls and streams in Tennessee. 

As Rivers explains, there’s a lot of symbolism to that styling decision. 

“We have long used water as a metaphor — surrounded by it, keeping your head above water, things like that. With the waterfall you’re going down the river and you’re just muddling through life, and then all of a sudden here’s this diagnosis and it can be this sudden drop and this feeling of helplessness,” she says. “Then you find yourself in this pool and you might get tossed around a little bit because there’s a big learning curve and life changes, but then you settle into things. Often, you are surrounded by beauty — beautiful people like my friends and family rallied, loved me and lifted me up. The waterfall flows down into a pool surrounded by all this beauty. It’s a metaphor for the disease.” 

A focus on advocacy, and the need for increased research on MBC, is a central part of the campaign alongside the first-person survivors’ stories. 

“For so long the metastatic cancers have been overlooked,” Fairchild explains. “It’s not just with breast cancer. It’s pitifully underfunded, but we get more money than any other metastatic cancer. Looking at metastasis research across the board, not enough of it is happening.”

While “Imagine” has just launched and it is too early to measure its potential impact, the larger #ThisIsMBC campaign has reached millions of MBC patients and their friends and family with 6.5 million total impressions and more than 200,000 total engagements from its launch in 2016 to October 2022. 

The results that Rivers hopes to see can’t be measured in numbers, however, and instead involves a rethinking of how we approach cancer, including breast cancer, broadly. 

“In order to save lives, to really meet the needs of patients, metastatic breast cancer has to be infused in every strategy, policy and every aspect of cancer care. We have to focus on the needs of metastatic breast cancer patients and make sure that we have funding and research in order to stop deaths instead of just continuing the same practice of only focusing on earlier stages.”