Everyone, please meet my friend, Carolyn.
When were you diagnosed and at what age? What type of breast cancer (i.e., er+ or triple neg)?
On May 1st, 2009, I was diagnosed with stage III, er+ pr+ HER2+ (or triple positive), breast cancer at the age of 48, a few days before my youngest son turned sixteen. Due to the extreme growth of the breast tumour and other symptoms prior to the mastectomy it was speculated that I had inflammatory breast cancer but it was not noted as such.
On July 29th, 2012, at the age of 51, I was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer (stage IV) after it was finally determined that the pain I had been in for many months was due to a breast cancer tumour destroying my C6 vertebra. This fact was missed by radiologist(s) in two CT scans until a neurologist found it while reviewing my older scans.
Inflammatory breast cancer hit my remaining breast in October, 2013. While the pathology remains triple positive, it can’t be said with certainty that it was due to metastasize or a new occurrence.
What is life like as a metser?
Difficult, joyful, exhausting, uncertain, some days more painful than others, some weeks I can’t manage the dishes or get off the couch, some days I can dance. For each person living with MBC there is a unique combination of conditions, variables, treatments, response, and progression of disease. I’ve yet to embrace the term “new normal.” There is nothing normal about life with metastatic cancer, new or otherwise.
For me, life happens in the spaces between my examinations, blood work, and IV infusions. Every three months I have CT scans to head, neck, chest and abdomen, which includes IV contrast injections. Every two months I have an echocardiogram to determine how my heart is coping with my infusions of Herceptin, which is much preferable over the many muga scans I had during my first year with that drug. Full body bone scans, MRI’s, and x-rays are intermittent.
While life happens I’m plagued with constant neck spasms which cause my head to move to the side repeatedly during the day, a distended, firm carotid artery, painful cramping in my chest, neck and esophagus, and an uncomfortable, often painful, upper spine due to spine surgery and the titanium cage, rods and screws. When I yawn, I can’t swallow or breathe well until I massage a neck cramp away.
The treatments and surgeries I’ve undergone over the last seven years have taken a toll. I have peripheral neuropathy, my extremities are numb full time. I’m prone to trip as I can’t feel my toes. My hands wear invisible gloves that I can’t remove. Fibrosis (scarring) and adhesions are also a pain in the neck, chest, ribs, back, shoulders, etc. Two of my bottom teeth are hanging on by a thread, and some of my upper middle gum came off during my neck radiation. There are other ongoing and permanent side effects as well, including cognitive decline.
My favourite moments: Reclining in my lazy boy to relieve symptoms while chatting with my youngest son and listening to his favourite music. When my two older sons and daughter-in-law come to call. Tea with my systir and niece. Laughing with my family during our visits, dinners and events. Tending and loving my eight month old grandson, a joy I didn’t think I’d experience once diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer. Walking with my friend and her dog.
When my sister, brother, sister-in-law, and I get together with our children and our Mom, breast cancer is no longer so very present in my mind. It took me almost six years to get to this point.
The most disconcerting issue I find is the uncertainty. We just don’t know how long we have left to live after a metastatic breast cancer diagnosis, when we will progress, what – or if – treatments will be available when we do, nor what type of death we can expect. We could live the median of two to three years, or we could be an outlier, that infinitesimal percentage of people who live 8, 10 years, or longer. It messes with your mind, your sleep, your resolve.
What type of misconceptions about breast cancer have you encountered? Has anyone ever said something ignorant to you, obviously not knowing what stage 4 breast cancer is?
When you have breast cancer, you are never cured, no matter what stage you were originally diagnosed. There is no cure. If you were not diagnosed with MBC from the start, Metastatic (aka stage IV) breast cancer can become your reality at any time; a year, a few years, or many years after your original early stage diagnosis. I have learned that many people, with or without breast cancer, are not aware of this fact.
I’m continually told, “you beat it once, you’ll beat it this time!” No. I will not. Nor did I beat it the first time. It is not under my control. We manage it, while it grows in our bodies and attacks our bones, our other organs, our brains, until we can’t manage it any longer.
I find it is an innate human desire, for most people, to comfort and somewhat coddle those who are going through early stage breast cancer. While encouragement, support, and hope is most certainly warranted and necessary, I feel that the hard truths must be given as well. The misconception being, that we need to be coddled. I don’t believe we do.
One day at the grocery store a young man at the check out asked me how I was. I said that I was fine, that particular day I was telling the truth even though I was in pain. He then went on to inform me that he had a cold, his girlfriend left him, and he hated work. I don’t know what possessed me, but I asked him, are you dying? He looked a little stunned, and didn’t respond, no doubt thinking I was off my rocker. I couldn’t believe I had asked that, perhaps it was due to large pink sign above his till, and the many products with pink ribbons that surrounded me. I then explained that I had metastatic breast cancer, stage IV, and that it was terminal, it will kill me.
He said, “No one dies of breast cancer anymore, my Mom died of it, but they fixed it.”
My heart sank, for more than one reason.
How do you think the Pink Ribbon culture has harmed those with stage 4?
The Pink Ribbon culture has overwhelmed us with profit minded individuals and corporations who claim to be altruistic in their goals. I’m sure most people are quite sick of pink and zone out when pink is shoved in their face, not just during Pinktober, but all year long. I know I am. Quite sick of it. But breast cancers association with pink is ingrained in our lives and I doubt it will be going anywhere soon, and I’d like to see the focus on donations and fundraising shift almost fully towards research and education.
Mainstream media could help change direction, but I’m afraid that with the pink, comes the desire to show the happy survivor, the hope and the dreams, rather than the approximate 30% of us with breast cancer who will become metastatic and die. This attitude has been slightly changing of late, let’s hope the momentum continues.
The pink ribbon, originally salmon coloured, was introduced to create a much needed awareness of breast cancer. And while breast cancer awareness is still important in many countries, awareness of metastatic breast cancer is sorely lacking in all. The messages from these awareness campaigns have sanitized our disease, not to mention partially obliterated the reason behind the original intent of the pink ribbon movement. Pink ribbon campaigns in the marketplace are quite lucrative, a great way to bring in consumer dollars for any end product, from toiletries and pink hammers to pornography. But where are those funds going? We need donations to count, research is key.
Recently the Susan G. Komen corporation put out a new campaign using a woman with stage IV breast cancer as their highlighted warrior. I’m encouraged that they are no longer hiding stage IV in the back room, however, the message is wrong. Again.
“Don’t let breast cancer win.”
No one living with metastatic breast cancer has a choice in the matter, we aren’t losers, but breast cancer WILL kill us. The statement on Komen’s stage IV survivor ad, as well as others I’ve read in various promotions, place the blame directly at those of us living with this disease. It’s our fault if we die, we didn’t fight hard enough. That’s the message. It’s insulting, insensitive, inappropriate, and complete bullshit.
In the US the message that seems most prevalent in the pink ribbon campaigns is that early detection saves lives. The truth is, early detection does not prevent metastases. Plain and simple. If you have early stage breast cancer, it can come back, metastasize, turn your life upside down and eventually cause death. The market seems saturated with misguided information and greed, the focus has been corrupted, change is needed.
I personally stay away from anything that says “Komen.” Their message, their million dollar plus legal fights to keep “for the cure” to themselves, and the questionably high salary that the their founder takes home, are all concerning. It is my personal opinion that they are the bully foundation for what is known as the bully cancer. And why are we known as the bully cancer? Probably due to the pink ribbon culture.
There are other organizations that direct a much greater percentage of funds towards research verses awareness. The Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation is one of those organizations, and is transparent regarding fund allocation.
METAvivor‘s mission is quite clear, 100% of all donations goes towards metastatic research. Please check them out if you want more information.
Breast cancer doesn’t kill you until it metastasizes, yet stage IV seems mostly ignored within the Pink Ribbon culture. At least that’s how I felt a few years ago and I don’t feel all that differently right now. I wrote about my views in two posts, starting with Fifty Shades of Pink, back in 2013. That post will link to the next, my rant. At that time, I did not think I’d still be alive come 2015.
No amount of positive thinking is going to change the outcome of metastatic breast cancer. Research will.
What advice would you give someone who truly does want to help the breast cancer community, especially those with metastatic breast cancer?
Educate yourself, share the reality of breast cancer, share the truth of metastatic breast cancer, and don’t be afraid to talk with those of us living with MBC.
Be mindful that many of us, especially those with mets, don’t care about saving the ta-ta’s, boobie’s, the girls. Many of us don’t even have breasts. We care about saving lives. Life goes on after your breasts are amputated. We want parents to raise their children and watch their children grow, couples to enjoy the years together that they hoped for. We want to enjoy our lives and live without debilitating side effects, no matter our ages.
Many of us are insulted by the facebook games and various campaigns that go around claiming they are spreading awareness of breast cancer. One example was the popular no-bra day. I feel those games are trivializing our condition, and continuing to sexualize our disease. Every day is no-bra for some of us. This type of activity is not helpful. Those who play the games, and those who see them, are most assuredly fully aware of breast cancer.
Please visit these organizations for information on breast cancer and MBC:
Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation
Breast Cancer Consortium
BCSM (Breast Cancer Social Media) Community
LBBC (Living Beyond Breast Cancer)
MBCN (Metastatic Breast Cancer Network)
How can someone diagnosed with early stage breast cancer be a good ally to those with stage 4?
Once immersed in life with metastatic breast cancer I quickly became knowledgable with respect to it’s randomness and ultimate end. I then realized that when I was diagnosed and dealing with stage III breast cancer I didn’t have a clue about metastatic breast cancer. I had pamphlets, and one book that my original oncologist contributed to, which I read, though I’m not sure the very real possibility of becoming metastatic sunk in. I’m going to be just fine! I’ve had my surgery and treatments, I’m outta here!
I’d like to think that landscape is changing, people with early stage disease are better informed, personally informed, in your face informed, and not just handed a few things to read. But, it’s probably more likely that because I’m now fully immersed, I am fully aware, and because those I write and talk with are fully aware, I often assume others are as well.
We have work to do. Education is so important. The reality is hard to swallow but necessary to accept. That’s how change happens.
Keep in mind that those of us who were not diagnosed with stage IV from the start, once walked in your shoes. Living with stage IV, metastatic breast cancer, is in some ways similar to going through the various treatments for early stage breast cancer, two differences being that our treatments are forever, and our condition worsens until breast cancer kills us. There are obviously other differences, but hopefully my point makes sense.
Please remember that your breast cancer can come back at any time, I’m not trying to be a fear monger and certainly don’t wish you to live with constant dread, but I feel it’s important to remain realistic and vigilant.
Metastatic breast cancer is a widespread global killer of both sexes, young, old, and in between. In 2012, 524865 women and 3324 men died of metastatic breast cancer. Many MBC deaths go unreported as such, therefore the true numbers are higher.
If you wish to help us be heard, educate yourself about Metastatic Breast Cancer (stage IV), don’t pretend it doesn’t exist, and help us spread it’s reality.
Change is on the horizon! I might even live to see some of it. That’d be cool.
I’d like to thank Lara Huffman for allowing me this opportunity to share my views and concerns with respect to metastatic breast cancer.
You can read my story, rants, and musings at Art of Breast Cancer and if you are so inclined, follow me on Facebook, twitter, google+, and pinterest.