3 Metastatic Breast Cancer "Thrivers" on Defying the Odds, Defeating the Disease, and Empowering Their Communities

Diagnosed in their 20s and 30s, these three incredible women are determined to make a difference for other people living with stage 4 breast cancer.

3 Inspiring Metastatic Breast Cancer Survivor Stories
Photo: Instagram

Every year, 200,000 Americans are diagnosed with breast cancer, and of those folks, roughly 6 percent will be diagnosed initially with metastatic breast cancer, or stage 4 breast cancer. Metastatic breast cancer is the most advanced stage of the disease in which the cancer has spread beyond the breasts and into other parts of the body.

But thanks to recent scientific advancements and breakthrough treatments, women with metastatic breast cancer have found that, with targeted treatment, they're able to have a solid quality of life, explains Jane Mendez, MD, Chief of Breast Surgery for Miami Cancer Institute, part of Baptist Health South Florida.

It's the reason that stage 4 patients who are living with the disease often refer to themselves as thrivers rather than survivors.

Here, the moving stories of three thrivers who were diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer in their 20s and 30s.

Maggie Kudirka

Maggie Kudirka
Maggie Kudirka - @baldballerina

In 2014, 23-year-old Maggie Kudirka was living her dream as a ballet dancer with the Joffrey Ballet Concert Group in New York City. However, in February of that year, she felt a pea-sized lump in her armpit while showering.

"I didn't think much of it and ignored it," she recalls. "But a month later in rehearsal, I felt a pop in my sternum during a [dancing] lift. I thought I had pulled a muscle and that it would heal."

But over the next three months, the lump grew to the point where Kudirka could physically see it in her chest. The sternum discomfort she experienced got to the point where she couldn't do much physically without pain. Yet, she continued to dance, making it through the last show in May. However, Kudirka was in so much pain that she recalls not being able to even lift her arm.

Her mother took notice. "[She saw that] I wasn't dancing like I normally [did], and asked what was wrong," says Kudirka. So, the next day, after explaining to her mother what was wrong, they went to a sports medicine doctor in New York City who performed an X-ray on Kudirka.

"They came to the conclusion that I had a pulled pectoral muscle," she recalls. "But that didn't answer why I had a huge lump."

The dancer and her mother soon returned to Maryland, her home state, where she started seeking out second opinions. Kudirka remembers that physicians noted how young she was (23), and that her pain (and the lump) probably weren't serious because of that. If the pain persisted, they said, Kudirka could see her in a few months.

"We kept calling until finally, a nurse-midwife recognized that this could be serious and saw me right away," says Kudirka, who was then sent for a mammogram, sonogram, and biopsy. Unsurprisingly, the result was anything but a pulled muscle: Kudirka was diagnosed with stage 4 metastatic breast cancer in her sternum, spine, hips, and lymph nodes.

Soon after, Kudirka started six rounds of chemotherapy, followed by infusion maintenance treatments and a double mastectomy with no reconstruction. Over the years, she says that she's experienced three progressions of disease, all of which have resulted in treatment changes. And while she was told that metastatic patients typically have just three to five years to live post-diagnosis, Kudirka just hit her seventh year living with the disease this past July, using oral chemotherapy as treatment.

The experience has empowered Kudirka to tune into her body, use her voice, and "enjoy each second of each day." "I wish I had listened to my body sooner, but I was young and thought I was unstoppable," she recalls. "I have learned that, if my body or my gut is telling me something, I should trust it."

Although being diagnosed in her 20s initially felt isolating, Kudirka was met with support from family and friends, and she believes the road ahead is bright. "If you are diagnosed in your 20s, know your life isn't over, and know cancer is just one thing in your life," says Kudika. "You can still do everything you want to do."

Although Kudika's dreams of being a professional ballet dancer have been put on hold, her diagnosis gave her the chance to pursue new passions. She currently teaches tween and teen dancers twice a week.

"I share with them my diagnosis and my life with cancer," says Kudika. "They are the future, and if they are aware of breast cancer and are educated, they can make a difference."

Jamil Rivers

Jamil Rivers
Jamil Rivers - @truejamilkali

At 39 years old, Jamil Rivers was a mom of three and a chief financial officer in Willamstown, NJ. It was late 2017, and she and her family had just moved into a new house. Everyone came down with a cold around the same time, but Rivers' symptoms — a cough in particular — lingered for a month after her family's infection seemed to pass.

After trying an antibiotic and an asthma pump to no avail, Rivers went in for a chest scan as well as an ultrasound of her abdomen, because she felt a "little pinch" on her side and knew that appendicitis and gallbladder issues run in her family. But as it turned out, the imaging revealed she had lesions all over her body.

She thought back to 2015 when she had suffered a miscarriage, and one of her breasts had become engorged. The breast took longer than the other to return to its normal appearance and texture. At the time, her doctor chalked up the engorged breast to simply being "overactive," encouraging Rivers not to worry about it.

"When I learned that I had lesions all over my body, my brain automatically went there," recalls Rivers. "I asked for a mammogram too."

She ended up getting a mammogram as well as an ultrasound and MRI, and by the end of February 2018, she was diagnosed with invasive ductal carcinoma, which is a form of cancer that begins growing in a milk duct and invades the fibrous or fatty tissue of the breast outside of the duct. The cancer was also metastatic, spreading to multiple body parts (except for her spine and brain). Doctors also noted that it was estrogen- and progesterone-receptor positive, HER2 negative.

Having just been through her husband's stage 1 colon cancer diagnosis in 2012, Rivers couldn't fathom her children having not one, but two, parents with cancer.

But Rivers was reassured by her radiologist that plenty of young women aren't only living, but are thriving, with metastatic breast cancer. The radiologist told Rivers that she'd need to take it step-by-step, and that her care team would have her back the whole time.

The mom of three continued to work even as she battled the disease in order to maintain a dual income. She connected with organizations like the American Cancer Society in Philadelphia, Living Beyond Breast Cancer, and Metavivor to learn as much as she could about the disease and how to navigate life as best as possible. "I got my eyebrows microshaded and shaved off my hair," remembers Rivers.

After a year of chemotherapy, and after having her ovaries removed, finally — Rivers received some good news. "All of my tumors had shrunk and disappeared," she says. "I was so thankful." Now, she's been on a CDK4/6 inhibitor and an aromatase inhibitor for three years.

Nowadays, Rivers is still receiving treatment (she's on a CDK4/6 inhibitor and an aromatase inhibitor, which help to reduce hormones that stimulate the growth of breast cancer cells), but she's turned her efforts toward becoming advocate in the breast cancer space. Rivers founded the Chrysalis Initiative, which aims to disrupt breast cancer outcome disparities — specifically among Black women — with educational resources and mentoring. (

Beyond her community work, Rivers believes more funding should be put toward metastatic breast cancer research. "I want to be able to have that next therapy on the shelf, because I'm going to be in treatment for the rest of my life," she notes. "So I need for [research on metastatic breast cancer] to happen and for more resources and investment to [be put toward] not only preventing cancer or metastatis, but toward treating metastatic breast cancer."

Stephanie Seban

Stephanie Seban
Stephanie Seban - @stephanie_seban

A decade ago, Stephanie Seban was 31, living in her hometown of Los Angeles, and teaching English when she noticed a visible mass growing in the center of her chest. Lacking other symptoms or a family history of breast cancer, Seban didn't think anything of it. "I thought it was an abormality with my cycle, and I ignored it for a couple of months," she recalls.

Soon, that mass began to grow "aggressively." Concerned, Seban saw her physician who, following diagnostics, concluded that she had estrogen-receptor positive, HER2 positive breast cancer that had spread to her lymph nodes and metastasized to her bone.

"Everyone was shocked that it was late stage," remembers Seban. "Ten years ago, no one was really talking about young women with breast cancer — let alone living with metastatic breast cancer."

Seban moved across the country to New York City for treatment and was told that she had a 15 percent chance of survival, and that one in five women with her diagnosis would live to see five years. Despite that grim prognosis, she went on drugs that were specific for HER2 positive breast cancer, and it was "smooth sailing for a couple of years."

That is, until another mass started to grow back in the same location as the first. And the drugs weren't working anymore. Her oncologists at the time said they were out of treatment options. "I was like, 'I'm not ready to die, so that's not an option,'" recalls Seban.

After reading Radical Remission by Kelly A. Turner, which uncovers nine factors that can lead to a spontaneous remission from cancer, Seban decided to pursue Chinese medicine as part of her treatment plan. At the urging of her practitioner, Dr. George Y.C. Wong, Seban sought a second opinion and had a breast surgeon do a biopsy, which concluded that her cancer was, in fact, HER2 negative and estrogen receptor-positive. In other words, she had initially been misdiagnosed.

With that new diagnosis, Seban says she finally "took the right treatment and things turned around."

That was six years ago, and she's been in a "good, stable place" ever since. "I do my Chinese medicine, I try to eat a really clean diet, I exercise, and I really believe our mind is so powerful — just as powerful as medicine — so I incorporate prayer and meditation to stay in a positive headspace," says Seban.

She also believes in the power of creating your own personalized care team. "Everyone plays their position," she notes. "That has been an important piece of the puzzle for me."

But her top tip for women navigating a similar path? Be your own strongest advocate. "Ask questions, get second opinions, know your diagnosis, know your treatment, know what is in the pipeline," she advises. "There are times when I made decisions, and my oncologist and family and friends thought was nuts. But — knock on wood — it has served me well."

These days, Seban can be found pouring energy into advocacy and entrepreneurship, serving as a behind-the-scenes mastermind of Savage x Fenty by Rihanna's Breast Cancer Awareness Campaign and running ThriveGang, a fashion and gift brand that aims to take guesswork out of what to get someone when they are newly diagnosed, along with her best friend Amanda Anik.

Her guiding light along the way: "I really believe in staying positive, as cliche as it sounds," says Seban. "That is what has served me on my own personal journey."

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