When I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I never dreamed it would all be so complicated. I also didn’t realize I’d have to make decisions that would affect my ‘survival rate’ or ‘cancer recurrence rate.’ I thought a team of doctors would tell me what to do. Everybody I met had a different opinion, and ultimately, I had to make my own decisions about surgery and treatment each step of the way.
Hot Hubby and I pondered such delights as potential recurrence and survival rates versus percentage of potential side effects for various treatments. And as Hot Hubby pointed out, I decreased my survival rates by driving to these appointments with the crazy LA drivers out there!
After meeting many respected oncologists, we found the third trifecta of our dream team. Dr. Philomena McAndrew walked us through the pathology of my tumor and showed us data on the effectiveness and recurrence rates of hormone therapy and IV chemotherapy. She believes breast cancer has been treated as “one size fits all” in the past, instead of a more personalized approach. She strongly believed the data on my tumor from two FDA approved genetic tests that showed me at low-risk for recurrence. McAndrew didn’t believe IV chemo would lower my risk of recurrence. I looked her in the eyes and said clearly she’s the expert. I trusted her guidance for adjuvant therapy, and I needed her advice for my next steps. She very calmly said, “I believe that IV chemotherapy would not lower your risk of recurrence to warrant the side effects. I’ve showed you the data, but YOU have to believe that.” So that was that.
We discussed how the next ten years would look with hormone therapy. By the way, this is no “get out of jail free” card. Tamoxifen is supposed to cut my risk of metastatic disease from 20% to about 10%, which means I should grow old with Hot Hubby and die in my sleep holding his hand after a long walk on the beach with our grandchildren. But there are no guarantees. Tamoxifen also comes with many uncomfortable side effects including moodiness, hot flashes, risk of stroke and uterine cancer (lovely).
My battle is far from over, and I could be sharing a very different story or not be here to share at all had I detected this disease later. According to my PET/CT and bone scans, I am cancer free (YAY!), and I am taking a daily magical pill that suppresses the hormones that feed my cancer, and will prevent a recurrence. (Frankly it seems like a huge weight to put on one measly pill!) I had breast reconstructive surgery, I recovered nicely, and had four subsequent surgeries. It was quite a year!
Now we’re on the other side of cancer, I realize we attacked this disease as a family, and learned important lessons. Before, I never worried about cancer. A plane crash? A car accident? Maybe. But cancer?
As it turned out, cancer had a lot to teach me:
- This is science and doctors are all “practicing” medicine.
- The little things that would really freaking irritate me… well, they seem so insignificant now.
- Nothing is more important than family and friends.
- I am incredibly grateful for so many things. And gratitude is so powerful and healing. I’m especially grateful for the people who showed kindness and helped us through our toughest times. I wish I could write every single name down to thank them, but they all know who they are.
- Cancer takes a toll and it’s constant. It’s not just a massive shock the day you are diagnosed, but it’s a continual attack. At times it’s manageable, but other times I want to scream: “Hey, remember I’m going through cancer and this freaking sucks. I might be making jokes and smiling, but this is just a coping mechanism to help me through this crappy time.”
- I’m not angry that I had cancer. The closest to anger is when I think about the worry, pain and fear that forced my sweet boys to grow up more quickly.
- I will not be ashamed of my scars and my reconstructed breasts. I am proud of my body and what it has overcome, and I feel lucky to be alive.
- Once cancer touches your life it’s there forever. I am certainly not going to live in fear of a recurrence, however I realize I don’t have time to waste, and understand now more than ever how fragile and unpredictable life is. I make the most of every second.
- I’m not afraid to die. Before learning the stage of my cancer, I felt strangely calm and was already planning next steps for my boys. Thankfully this wasn’t my path and I feel content with my life and have no regrets.
- Our family can do hard things. We can face a scary diagnosis. We can figure out a treatment plan. We can manage the treatment. We may not want to do it, but we can. That feels pretty awesome.
I’m told that my five and ten year anniversaries are significant. Each headache and knee pain over the next few years will be stressful with the “what if’s,” but I refuse to live in fear. I will continue to live life full and large, and as Nemo said, “Just keep swimming!”