30 years

This month, it’ll be 30 years since my mother died. Gotta say, it feels surreal that she’s been gone for this long. My mom, she missed pretty much everything in my life, minus my birth. She was definitely there for that one. After that, my mother missed my First Communion, Confirmation, high school graduation, college graduation, first job, first heartbreak, buying my first house, so on and so on.

She wasn’t there when I had breast cancer. More than anything, I missed her while I was going through treatment. I wanted my parent there so badly. Just because I don’t remember doesn’t mean I don’t miss her and have a mom-shaped hole in my heart, which will never go away.

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This is what she just missed in my life. My two brothers, each of whom have kids, also missed out having our mother in their lives.

Metastatic breast cancer is a thief. It’s a dirty dirty thief. It stole my mother, and I’m doing something about it. Once again, I’m raising money for Metavivor. Every dollar you donate will go toward researching metastatic breast cancer. This year, I decided to run 30 miles this year – one mile for every year she has been gone.

That’s right – 30 freaking miles. I’m doing a marathon and then 3.8 miles before.  The date will be November 18 – be there or be square, and watch me hobble toward this bonkers goal of mine.

If you can donate, then you can do so here:

https://secure.metavivor.org/page/contribute/larahuffman30

If you cannot, I understand and would be very appreciative of anyone who can share my story and my link.

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How hard is it to tell the truth?

Not too long ago, a commercial for a local healthcare system in Western Pennsylvania caught my attention for the “statistic” it features at the very beginning.  The commercial is for the healthcare system’s 3D mammography services.

As soon as I read that “99 percent of women will survive breast cancer if detected early,” I shouted, “YOU’RE LYING.”  Unsurprisingly, the source of this so-called statistic is the Susan G. Komen foundation, though I have no doubt that Excela took the statistic out of context to suit its own purposes.  Excela Health wants to get as many women into the doors for its Walk in Wednesdays, and what better way than to keep perpetuating the myth that mammogram saves lives or early detection saves lives.  Who cares if it completely disregards facts, science or context, right?

Let me count the ways in which the commercial is as wrong as Donald Trump as president (seriously, dude is a clown).

1.) Those diagnosed with early stage breast cancer may go on to become metastatic, though the exact number is unknown. 

The Metastatic Breast Cancer Network estimates that 20 to 30 percent of those diagnosed with early stage breast cancer go on to become metastatic.  (Source)  We don’t know this statistic for certain because of this problem, as stated in Laurie Becklund’s op-ed “As I lay dying”:

I say “estimated” because no one is required to report a metastatic diagnosis. Death certificates normally report symptoms such as “respiratory failure,” not the actual disease. We are literally uncounted.

We now know that breast cancer is not one disease. What works for one person might not for another: There is no one “cure.” We are each, in effect, one-person clinical trials. Yet the knowledge generated from those trials will die with us because there is no comprehensive database of metastatic breast cancer patients, their characteristics and what treatments did and didn’t help them [emphasis mine].

 

How can any healthcare network make the assertion that 99 percent of women will survive if their breast cancer is diagnosed given the lack of information?  They can’t, and they should not.  It’s irresponsible for any health care provider to even give the impression that 99 percent of women will survive breast cancer if diagnosed early, especially without giving a time frame (context!).   Ms. Becklund died of metastatic breast cancer (source).

2.)  Excela Health is perpetuating the myth that mammograms save lives.   For years, there has been so much controversy regarding the effectiveness of mammograms.  Do they save lives, or have they contributed to the over-diagnosis of breast cancer?

Back in 2009,  the U.S. Preventative Services Task Force recommended that mammograms should begin at 50, instead of 50, and should occur every two years, instead of every year.

September 23, 2013 CBSNews.com article reported: 

A new study shows that women between the ages of 50 to 74 that get mammography screenings every two years may be at no more risk for advanced-stage breast cancer and at a lower risk for false positives, than those who get tested annually.

The results, which were published on March 18 in JAMA Internal Medicine, follow the 2009 recommendation by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force that advocated for biennial mammography for women in this age group instead of the previous suggestion of getting screened every one to two years.

However, the study authors pointed out that the original recommendations only looked at age as a factor for influencing breast cancer risk. This new study factored in age, breast density and postmenopausal use of hormone therapy (HT).

According to a February 12, 2014 CBSNews.com item:

A controversial new study has found that annual mammograms may not help reduce breast cancer deaths and may increase the number of women unnecessarily getting treated for breast cancer.  The Canadian study tracked almost 90,000 women for 25 years, and found that having an annual mammogram between the ages of 40 to 59 did not lower the chance of dying from breast cancer more than having a physical examination.

The study, which was published in BMJ on Feb. 11, disconcertingly showed that 22 percent of invasive breast cancers were overdiagnosed by mammography, meaning the tumors would usually have been too small to cause symptoms or become life-threatening.

If different task forces and non-profit agencies cannot even come to the same conclusion regarding mammography, that speaks volumes.    Some might argue that, “Well, hey, the mortality rate is declining, so of course mammograms save lives?”  Well, are mammograms saving lives or is targeted therapies and better treatment contributing to this (source)?

3.) Without context, the 99 percent statistic is just misleading.

The American Cancer Society’s 2013-2014 Breast Cancer Facts & Figures (found here) states:

Based on the most recent data, relative survival rates [i.e., an estimate of the percentage of patients who will survive for a given period of time after a cancer diagnosis] for women diagnosed with breast cancer are: • 89% at 5 years after diagnosis • 83% after 10 years • 78% after 15 years

Relative survival rates should be interpreted with caution. First, they do not predict individual prognosis because many patient and tumor characteristics that influence breast cancer survival are not taken into account. Second, long-term survival rates are based on the experience of women treated many years ago and do not reflect the most recent improvements in early detection or treatment.

The same Facts & Figures document also states that five-year relative survival is also lower among women diagnosed with breast cancer before the age of 40 (yay…. me).   “This may be due to tumors diagnosed at younger ages being more aggressive and/or less responsive to treatment.”  You can’t make a blanket statement about a disease that is so complex.  Cancer doesn’t work that way, and breast cancer certainly does not work that way.  Breast cancer is not just one disease – it’s many.

4.) How dare anyone, especially a healthcare system provider, imply, insinuate or just outright state that those with metastatic disease weren’t proactive in their health or didn’t do all that they can to prevent a metastatic breast cancer diagnosis.   

An estimated 6% to 10% are diagnosed stage IV as their initial diagnosis (source).  What does that mean?  The remaining percentage were diagnosed with breast cancer (stage 0 through III) at some point prior to a metastatic recurrence.  Believe me, they were getting routine screenings (such as mammograms, MRIs and/or PET scans) from their oncologists or other healthcare provider.   After their initial diagnosis, those with estrogen (ER) + breast cancer take some form of hormone suppression medication (such as Tamoxifen, Arimidex and Zoladex).

Lisa B. Adams, who died in March 2015 from metastatic breast cancer, did absolutely everything to reduce her risk of a breast cancer recurrence after she was diagnosed with stage II breast cancer in December 2006.  She wrote on her website she had the following done: double mastectomy, chemotherapy (4 rounds of Adriamycin and Cytoxan two weeks apart followed by 4 rounds of Taxol two weeks apart), Zoladex injections to combat her ER+, PR+ breast cancer and later had a salpingo-oophorectomy (removal of my Fallopian tubes and ovaries) in December 2008.   She received a metastatic breast cancer diagnosis in 2012.

She caught it early!  She.  Caught.  It.  Early.   Many women (and men, of course) caught their breast cancer early, and later died of the disease, and that number is not 1 percent.

Just because someone has been diagnosed with stage IV breast cancer, it certainly does not mean that they did not do everything to prevent such a diagnosis.  Some tumors are more aggressive than others, and can be fast-growing.  Inflammatory breast cancer does not present with a lump.  It is quite possible to have a clean mammogram and then three months later, have a later stage breast cancer diagnosis.  To say otherwise, is downright offensive to those with stage IV breast cancer.

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Excela Health isn’t alone in this ever-present pink-washing cycle, perpetuating myth after myth.  However, given that they are an actual healthcare system, then they should be held to a higher standard.  I would love to think that the hospital I’m going to for my healthcare isn’t producing commercials with such garbage like this.  Breast cancer is horrible enough without adding myths and falsehoods on top of it.  How hard is it to tell the truth?

 

Mets Monday: Sharon

For this week’s Mets Monday story, please meet Sharon. Before her diagnosis of metastatic breast cancer, she already had non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. She reached out to me after my friends Carolyn and Susanne posted messages on their Twitters and Facebook asking others for more Mets Monday stories.

What was your age and diagnosis (er+, etc.)? How was it discovered?

I went for my yearly mammogram on October 22, 2013. The tech asked me why my left breast was hard. I told her I’d noticed it too and thought I pulled something at the gym. The radiologist looked at the films and saw a “shadow.” They scheduled me for a diagnostic mammogram with the teeny-tiny paddle and LOTS of pressure and an ultrasound on October 28, 2013. I was told it looked like something was pulling my breast tissue and they wanted to do a core biopsy to be safe, but were sure it was “nothing to worry about.” On November 14, 2013, an ultrasound guided core biopsy was performed. On November 6, 2013, my primary care doctor called and told me the biopsy showed infiltrating lobular carcinoma. She wanted me to see a breast surgeon to discuss the results further and plan the next steps. The breast surgeon told me the tumor was er/pr+, her2-, grade 3. She then scheduled me for a breast MRI on November 10, 2013 and gave me the name of the one and only plastic surgeon that worked with the hospital so I could set up a consultation. She also told me she’d like to work with my old oncologist to discuss treatment options. I told her I was not keen on seeing her since I had been seeing her every three months for follow-up for my lymphoma and she totally missed this, as well as ignoring my complaints of increased fatigue and bone pain in my lumbar and cervical spine. She told me the fatigue was a lasting side effect of chemo and that I was getting old and the pains were just arthritis. She also did a thorough exam of my breasts and abdomen every time I saw her. I didn’t do well on the MRI. The machine was malfunctioning and was very hot and my chest was killing me pressed against the plastic stand with holes for my breasts. The heat and pain was so bad, I asked them to stop the MRI because I was going to be ill. They told me no. I said, OK, you can clean the vomit out of the machine. They shot me out of there like a cannon and ran in with a pan which I proceeded to fill. End of MRI. By this time, I’m noticing that my left nipple is starting to invert. I’m thinking, “This is not good.” The breast surgeon schedules me for yet another core biopsy – same results. I’m thinking about the definition of insanity that I learned long ago. Meanwhile, I’m waiting for my previous oncologist’s office to call me for consultation. The breast surgeon called her after the MRI and I was discussed on a “tumor” board. It took a full two weeks for the oncologists office to call (on November 25, 2013) and they wanted me to wait another week and go to see her in an office not where I work, but 120 miles round trip from my home. I had a bad feeling about the progression I was seeing, I could now feel a large mass in my breast. I also did a self exam in front of the mirror (all my self exams were done in the shower like I’d been taught). When I lifted my left arm the entire outside of the left breast caved in. I called Cancer Treatment Centers of America. My first contact wanted to wait a couple of weeks to get me in for a second opinion so they would have time to get all the tissue and reports from the breast as well as the lymphoma. I told him I was certain it was in my best interests to see someone sooner rather than later. My husband and I saw the intake oncologist on November 29, 2013, the Friday after Thanksgiving. The rest of the appointments were not scheduled until Monday and Tuesday. He asked why they had put me through two biopsies when it was evident that the tumor was aggressive. I told him is guess was as good as mine. He told us he wanted us to have a PET scan the next day. My husband and I had intended to go home and stay overnight on Sunday, we had no clothes. He agreed to schedule the PET scan for Sunday. On Monday, I got the results. Stage IV infiltrating lobular carcinoma with “innumerable” mets to the cervical, thoracic and lumbar spine and “a few” mets to the sternum. I was 54 years old, post menopausal due to early onset menopause from chemo in 2009.
 Sharon

 

What is life like a metser?

At first, it was overwhelming and way too much to process. The person at CTCA who gave me the diagnosis was a surgeon, not a medical oncologist and he did everything CTCA doesn’t stand for. He showed no respect or compassion and was very blunt. I almost left in search of another breast center, but my hubby prevailed and asked me to give the medical oncologist a chance. I’m glad I did, I couldn’t have a better oncologist. But, I was so upset I vomited through all my appointments on Monday and cancelled the Tuesday appointments. I didn’t stop until Wednesday. While I was there, the MO gave me a shot of Xgeva, and a prescription for Anastrozole. The naturopath recommended supplements and gave written instructions to my husband. I scheduled an appointment for March. Now I’m living with a chronic disease. I don’t know how long I’ll be here, but I do know women are starting to survive 10 years or more. I’m hoping to be one of them. The Anastrozole is taking a toll on me, but it’s also kicking the cancer’s butt. At diagnosis, my breast tumor measured 8 centimeters. In March, 2014, it was 1 centimeter. I had a PET scan in July and NONE of the mets were active. My December PET showed one “hot spot” – L4, where I also have some of my arthritis. I do what many of us do: work to educate myself, to be my own advocate, find others who have shared experiences and seek their counsel, give support and hugs when I can and learn to accept them back. I have the standard “Mom” bucket list…I have one son and I want to see him with someone he loves with all his heart who loves him back. Checked that off, he’s marrying a wonderful person in November of this year. Now I want to see my first grandchild. Who knows, if people start spending money on research, I may see that grandchild grow.

Before your diagnosis, would you say you knew anything about breast cancer?

I have dense breasts, so this wasn’t my first rodeo with a biopsy. I had a stereotactic biopsy of my right breast when I was 40. It was pre-cancer (hyperplasia) and has never progressed. I got mammograms every year, did self exams every month. I wish I would have known to hunt for lumps in the shower but look for dimples in front of the mirror. After diagnosis, I did a little experiment. I asked close friends with large breasts if a) they did monthly breast exams (they did), and b) if they ever stood in front of a mirror and held up their arm and looked at the corresponding breast (they did not, but you bet they do now!). The only person that might have seen this sooner was my oncologist. My arms were over my head every three months, I complained about increased fatigue and pain in my cervical and lumbar spine, but she never connected anything. I broke two ribs doing nothing, the oncologist said I fell I just didn’t remember (I didn’t). My primary care doctor took me at my word and sent me for a bone scan (lymphoma loves bone marrow), but it only showed the broken ribs. I remember my oncology nurse well. She told me at the first infusion when I had an allergic reaction to one of the chemo drugs that if I had to have cancer, large B cell non-hodgkins lymphoma was the one to get. Fast growing, so chemo is perfect for it, but not too aggressive so there is no time to put it in check. She then said, “At least you don’t have breast cancer. You are never cured of that.” How prophetic. So I still have my breasts, I will probably never have chemo and I’ll just run through the list of Aromatise inhibitors until they no longer work, hopefully far into my future. So no, nothing prepared me for this, but nothing will stop me from fighting it as long as I have the strength either.

What do you wish other people knew about metastatic breast cancer?

Women with metastatic breast cancer are some of the strongest, most giving people I know. Breast cancer, especially lobular, is very sneaky. One minute you’re fine or “cured” when actually you may be one circulating tumor cell away from a death sentence. Breast cancer is serious stuff, it’s not all pink ribbons. Being permanently disfigured and devastated by side effects doesn’t give you a pass either. What does “prevention” and early detection do? How many lives does it truly save? I watched 60 Minutes last night. One of the segments was about clinical trials to treat neuroblastoma by injecting modified polio virus into the center of the tumor. Where are the trials to CURE stage IV breast cancer? They have made great strides in palliative treatment, that’s a long way from a cure.

What makes you happy?

My family, including my dogs, and the courageous women I’ve gotten to know. I joined a closed Facebook breast cancer group before realizing that most of the women were just starting the fight. I did however meet a couple of women who were where I am or further along in the struggle. When I went to visit a friend in Jacksonville, Fla., we drove down to Cocoa Beach so I could meet one of the women I met in the group. She has rods in her spine and femur and a smile on her face and a big hug and an amazing kinship with other woman, I felt like I knew her forever. We will always be connected.

What advice would you give to someone who really wants to help those with metastatic breast cancer? (This either be for a friend, stranger or someone who had early stage breast cancer.)

Don’t write us off, we’re not done yet. We don’t know our expiration date, but neither do you. Don’t define us by our diagnosis, we’re the same people we always were, but maybe a little better…stronger, more compassionate, more hopeful, more contemplative. Don’t throw pink ribbons and butterflies in our face, there but for the grace of God go you. Fight for a cure, not “awareness” or “early diagnosis” — the life saved by that cure may be your own.