But doctors and researchers, say while there is no cure, advances in treatments have more women now beating the odds.
Four years after first being diagnosed with breast cancer, the intensely private Maggie Daley spoke publicly about it for the first time.
Mrs. Daley lived with metastatic breast cancer for nine years. The average survival rate is two to three years.
Tripling the odds wasn't easy. She dealt with repeated hospitalizations, surgeries and several different therapies.
Northwestern oncologist Virginia Kaklamani didn't treat Mrs. Daley, but she says when her patients saw her in clinic they marveled at how well she looked.
"They were always inspired by her," said Kaklamani, "and they would come and say, 'God, she looks so great. What can I get that she is getting.' "
Stage 4 cancer can be treated, but it is considered incurable. Depending on the type of tumor, patients may live for many years.
For some women, survival depends on how receptive their tumors are to targeted therapies such as anti-estrogen treatments and a drug called Herceptin.
"Let's not underestimate a patient's own immune system and what it could be doing," said Loyola breast cancer specialist Kathy Albain. "Because, when you go to a certain level of cancer, the immune system can kick in again and help the disease control."
Dr. Albain says patients need to be knowledgeable about their disease.
"If you are not hearing everything about what your tumor looks like under the microscope with the different receptors are on the surface and what the options are for your exact tumor biology, you should seek other options until you are comfortable with that information," said Albain.
Treatment at this level can be as much as of an art as it is good science. Doctors say sometimes it takes trial and error to find what works best for each patient.
"We keep getting more and more stories like Maggie Daley's, where women live with breast cancer live with advanced breast cancer for many, many years," said Kaklamani.
Doctors stress that patients also have options through clinical trials as more drugs are now being tested.
Last year, Northwestern opened the Maggie Daley Cancer Center for Women's Cancer Care, offering attention to patients and their families.