Breast Cancer: Dealing With Survivor Guilt

Let me tell you about my friend Kat.  We met at a Boarding for Breast Cancer Retreat  three years ago, 5 months after I was suddenly diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer.

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Our boobies tried to kill us, so we cut them off and went surfing!  Kat is second to the left, on the bottom row.

The minute I saw her gorgeous face, and she made an off-color sex joke, I immediately knew we’d be friends.  We laughed, cried, and shared stories of fighting this disease while taking care of young children.

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The hard reality about cancer is that not everyone survives the fight.  Kat passed away on January 1, 2018 leaving behind her husband and two beautiful young children.  I last saw her a couple of months ago when she was in LA for yet another treatment for breast cancer related complications.

Which brings me to the point of this post.  It’s so very hard to accept that death is a part of this disease.  I’ve been almost paralyzed with the news, my sadness, and the unbearable thoughts this news is stirring up.  I’ve spoken with friends from the retreat, and realized we are all feeling the same.  Stuck in this scary place of disbelief, anger, sadness, and dare I say it, fear that it could be us next.

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As a cancer survivor you are diagnosed, your cancer is graded, and you are given a treatment plan (which typically involves a combination of surgery, chemo, radiation, medication… all four if you hit the cancer jackpot)!  Then you are left with your ‘risk of recurrence’.  Basically, even after you’ve exhausted all options for kicking this shit out of your body, you can never ever get back to that clean cancer-free slate.  Your doctor gives you a magical ‘risk of recurrence’ percentage, based on an algorithm that includes such things as age, medical history, stage of cancer, treatment plan etc.  Mine is 15%.  Which means there’s a 15% chance a secondary cancer will occur in my body, but an 85% chance it won’t!  It’s sort of like Russian Roulette at this point for me now.  The good news is I always bet big, and am not afraid of attacking challenges head on, even if risks are involved.  And frankly this one is out of my hands.

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You see my body contains cancer cells.  Even after surgically removing body parts, for some they radiate the crap out of their body, take a chemotherapy IV to the brink of death, then slowly nurse the body back to health again, there might be one stealth cancer cell remaining.  And that’s all it takes.  That is my risk of recurrence.  You see if there are cells remaining and they decide to grow, this is called a secondary cancer.  Secondary breast cancer occurs when breast cancer cells spread from the first (primary) cancer in the breast, to other parts of the body. This happens through the lymph nodes or the blood. And even better news (please note the sarcasm), secondary breast cancer can be treated, it can’t be cured.  It grows in organs.  We’re talking brain, lungs, liver etc… and it turns out your body needs these to survive, so you can’t surgically remove cancer from these places.  This is the problem.  This was Kat’s problem.  Her cancer recurred.

It’s been almost 3 years since I was diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer.   I visit my fab team of doctors regularly, I diligently take the ‘wonder drug’ tamoxifen (even though it makes me bat-shit crazy),  and I try to live every day to the fullest with no regrets.

I’m told if I make it to the 5 year mark without a recurrence, that is a positive sign, and if I make it to the 10 year mark, even better.  However I live every day on borrowed time.  I know this.  Kat knew this.  The doctors have no idea why cancer recurs in one person and not the next.  It feels almost like the flip of a coin, and today I feel as though I won the coin toss and my dear friend Kat lost the coin toss.  This is survivor’s guilt.

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I love a good cancer diagram!

Experiencing cancer gave me a different perspective on life and death, and made me face harsh realities.  Cancer was and still is devastating. We’ll never truly know why some survive and others don’t, it’s such a complex, sophisticated disease with far too many unknowns with random aggressiveness and recurrence.

While I have known several women who have lost their fight with breast cancer, there have been so many more I know who are living strong happy lives after their diagnosis. Sometimes there is no answer to the “why” – we just need to keep moving through it.

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Meet my beautiful friend Kat…

So Kat, cheers to you my sweet… this dreadful disease brought us together, and the news of your passing has brought me to my knees. For me personally, the toughest thing to see is a mom leaving behind her precious family to pick up the pieces.  I suppose at the back of my mind I’m thinking it could be me at any time if I lose that coin toss.  It’s not fair, it’s just not fair.  I will continue enjoying life, hug and kiss my gorgeous boys extra hard for a while, and cherish every moment I can with them, and think of you often.  Rest in peace Kat.  Your warmth, sparkling personality and zest for life will be sorely missed on this earth. I have so many precious, fun memories of you. You will be missed but never forgotten!!

 

Boarding for Breast Cancer (B4BC) is a 501(c)3 non-profit foundation that advocates early detection and a healthy, active, and sustainable lifestyle as the best means for breast cancer prevention. Founded in 1996, B4BC empowers young people to make positive choices that promote lifelong wellness through outreach, prevention, sustainability, and support programs.

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No biggie…. but this lady saved my life!

Breasts: The Owner’s Manual – Dr. Kristi Funk

This gorgeous and incredibly talented lady saved my life. Then became my friend. Then wrote a book. She effortlessly juggles being super-mom, super-surgeon, and super smart. You want her in your corner. Her mission is to educate as many women as possible about what they can do to stop breast cancer before it starts! 

One in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer over the course of their lives, and breast cancer is the #1 killer of women ages 20-59. But did you know that only 15 percent of those diagnosed have a single relative with breast cancer? For most of us, family history and genetics do not determine who gets breast cancer—we do! You have power over this disease.

Dr. Funk takes the broader conversation about total breast health to women everywhere with this straight-talking guide.  Every woman should own this book!

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