Marketers put out plenty of encouraging messaging for early-stage breast cancer patients, inspiring them to beat the disease and letting them know they’re not alone in fighting that battle. But for the metastatic, late-stage breast cancer (MBC) patients – more than 40,000 of whom die every year – there’s precious little in the way of communication that help them along the final stretch of their patient journey. Case in point: Only one of the 31 days in Breast Cancer Awareness Month is dedicated to late-stage patients.

To address that deficit, Wunderman Thompson Health has created an outreach messaging campaign of best practices for MBC patients. The goal is to provide them with the support, guidance and information about care options that can ease their way forward and let them know they haven’t been forgotten.

While early- and late-stage breast cancer patients have traditionally felt an easy kinship, it’s important for marketers and communicators to understand that the latter group requires a different approach. “There’s such a big difference between having a disease that’s technically curable, where you might be able to defeat or fight it, and having a disease that isn’t,” Wunderman Thompson Health chief creative officer Tuesday Poliak explains. “There are different emotional and information challenges that arise.”

While an emphasis on prevention and awareness makes sense for people not afflicted with MBC, Wunderman Thompson Health wants to change the discussion for late-stage patients.

“It’s not about the fight anymore,” Poliak continues. “Your fight is, instead, for a little bit more time and for quality of life, and those are very different fights. It’s really about moving from hope to acceptance – radical acceptance – and those are very different messages.”

The agency’s idea isn’t to dispense with hope, but rather to refocus it along the lines of helping them understand how they can do everything possible to get the most out of the days they have left. The goal, then, becomes helping MBC patients make it through the initial, overwhelming shock and get them to a place where they can “make some best choices for themselves,” Poliak says.

Since research shows that people over 50 faced with a major life decision often go online for advice and information, that’s where Wunderman Thompson Health is attempting to intercept newly diagnosed patients.

“We make sure we’re meeting them with the information and support that would drive them to have real conversations with their doctors, so that they are part of their treatment decision,” Poliak explains. “It’s imperative to make sure that the doctors and the care team are asking the patient, ‘What does the right treatment look like for you? What does quality of life mean for you?’”

Because brand-new MBC patients often find that large support groups for early-stage patients don’t address their needs – and that their condition is scary to the healthier members of those groups — they don’t have many places to turn with their questions. To that end, Wunderman Thompson Health is attempting to steer them toward support communities encompassing the patient and caregivers alike.

Even before COVID-19, most of these communities were virtual ones. That makes them a good fit for patients who may not be physically proximate to other late-stage breast cancer patients.

“We’re seeing a lot of advocacy groups with a lot of links and a lot of internally-built communities where you can share,” Poliak says. “It’s really interesting to see how a lot of the people who had been supported have become supporters.”

As for what success looks like for the campaign, there are the usual metrics (do MBC patients remember your message? are they downloading tools such as doctor discussion guides?). But Poliak believes real success in this particular realm is intangible, more about “meeting these people and relating to them emotionally, so that they can find the information that they trust and might use and take with them,” she explains. “They don’t need more hope. They just need you to listen and to understand what they’re going through.”