5 Stages of Grief

It has only been one month since my oncologist told me that I had metastatic breast cancer, and it’s only been a little over three weeks since my hysterectomy. Honest to dog, it feels like a couple months since all this began, as if I am in a suspended state. Between Covid-19 and my medical leave of absence, I have no concept of time anymore.

During this period of time, I have definitely cycled through the different stages of grief, which I imagine is quite common.

  1. Denial
  2. Anger
  3. Bargaining
  4. Depression
  5. Acceptance

If you are like me and need a refresher as to what constitutes the 5 Stages of Grief, refer to this article on Psycom.net (link), which discusses the Kubler-Ross Model.

DENIALAvoidance, Confusion, Elation, Shock, Fear

I previously believed that denial involved only avoidance, and even thought at one point, “Well, at least I never visited the denial phase.” Boy, I was wrong.

During September, I had both a bone scan and a CT scan of my neck down to my special area. When the bone scan posted to MyChart stated that my sternum presented as potential metastatic disease, I had a delayed mental breakdown. I had an important meeting that morning, which I had to lead. I told myself that I could break down later. When it was safe, I ended up taking a half day from work because I went to a bad place.

Quite simply, I went into shock. 

I swear, I knew that very day I was going to be stage 4 and that my cancer was back. I was already back in the chemo chair in my mind. I rocked back and forth in a corner in my bedroom, whispering, “I can’t do this” over and over again. My face went numb. My arms went numb and eventually, my hands went numb. I couldn’t

My loved ones who knew I was having a panic attack about this told me, “Oh this could be the result of your trip and fall.” I wanted to believe them and go along with their theory, and I eventually agreed it could be a possibility. I never really believed it fully, but I wanted to.

The fear that I felt that day will stay with me for a very long time. It’s the type of fear that consumes you and changes you. It definitely changed me.

ANGER – Frustration, Irritation, Anxiety

Oh, I have visited this stage and camped out here for a spell. Heck, I think I have bought a house in this stage, renovated it, and redecorated. I know this phase so well. I have felt angry, and why not? I’m allowed.

I did everything I was supposed to do to ensure that I didn’t suffer the same fate as my mother. I started getting yearly mammograms at the age of 25, and sometimes, I had to go twice a year. With every mammogram, I had an ultrasound done due to having dense breast tissue (aka fibrocystic breast tissue). I had multiple fiboradenomas, and multiple biopsies.

At the age of 30, doctors found my breast cancer at stage 1b. I “caught it early.” I went through absolute hell and back for almost 2 years – a lumpectomy, chemotherapy (including anaphylactic shock), radiation, double mastectomy, and reconstruction. Still, to this day, I experience legit flashbacks if I ever get lightheaded and dizzy because that’s the sensation I felt before anaphylactic shock.

I. Did. It. All.

My oncologist threw everything but the sink at me, and I came out of that period of my life scarred and shell shocked. I even had my oncologist repeatedly tell me that the odds of it coming back were so small because of the early stage and aggressive treatment. I did everything I could to prevent this, to not end up like my mother, and it still fucking happened. This should make me angry, and it’s okay to be angry. I’m not going to pretend to be someone or something I am not.

BARGAINING – Struggling to Find Meaning, Reaching Out to Others, Telling One’s Story

Man, if I thought I could bargain my way out of this, I absolutely would. For real, if I had something I could offer in order to not have this disease, then I would do it. “Lara, you will no longer have stage 4 cancer anymore if you give up coff-” “DONE.”

In all seriousness, I don’t consider myself all that religious, so I don’t typically hold conversations with God. I didn’t, nor will I ever, ask God why this has happened to me because why not? Me having stage 4 cancer is not some horrible tragedy. It’s genetics.

It might also be that I don’t believe that God gave me cancer, or that I have been set on some journey. (Whenever I read ‘cancer journey,’ I cringe. It’s a disease, not a trek in the woods.)

While I haven’t had any “WHY GOD WHY” conversations with a higher being, I have been struggling to find meaning in all of this. One of the reasons why I love(d) running so much is that it allowed me to be someone other than a cancer patient. I got to be a runner, an athlete. I wanted to test my physical capabilities, especially after my body betrayed and failed me.

Life as a cancer mutant with a rare genetic condition means I live a different life. I have had a black and white view of what this body of mine does, and this diagnosis has me wondering if it just all grey. Maybe my body didn’t fail me? Maybe my body did what it just does, and I just have to navigate these setbacks and accomplishments more graciously?

DEPRESSION – Overwhelmed, Helplessness, Hostility, Flight

According to the American Cancer Society, 1 in 4 people with cancer suffer from major or clinical depression (source). I have made absolutely no secret that I have dealt with depression before. After treatment for my early stage breast cancer ended, I suffered and I struggled with my life. I had to reach out for help when it got really bad for me in my early 30s.

An October 2, 2013 article on MD Anderson’s website provides the following symptoms of depression:

  • Feeling sad most of the time
  • Loss of pleasure and interest in activities you used to enjoy
  • Changes in eating and sleeping habits
  • Nervousness
  • Slow physical and mental responses
  • Unexplained tiredness
  • Feeling worthless
  • Feeling guilt for no reason
  • Decreased concentration ability
  • Thoughts of death or suicide

In addition to medication, MD Anderson recommended the following activities to manage symptoms of depression: psychotherapy exercise, and stick to routine. The article explained, “Following a routine can help you maintain a feeling of accomplishment and a sense of control, both of which can be negatively affected by cancer and depression. A routine can also help push an individual to engage in activities they wouldn’t necessarily be motivated to complete.”

I did end up doing all of those suggestions, and it worked for me! Once I got help, started running and dumped a horrible boyfriend, I got my depression and anxiety under control. I really did climb out of the fog of depression and learned to really enjoy my life.

Now… *waves around* this.

I am struggling with the enormity of this disease, and what it’s taken from me. When I read the symptoms of depression listed above, I can say that I can check off six of those items. What I have feared for so long has come to be. For so long, I have been absolutely frightened that I was going to end up just like my mother, and now that it has happened, I’m just a scared 40 year old who wishes she had her Mom.

Be rest assured that I do have a good network of support to assist me as I come to terms with my new normal. If I can get back to running, even if at a much slower pace, then that will help me manage my depression. I also think being off work right now is playing a part in my mood. I enjoy a schedule and routine, and I also appreciated the ability to not think about cancer for 8 hours a day.   

ACCEPTANCE – Exploring Options, New Plan in Place, Moving On

What does it meant to achieve acceptance with a stage 4 diagnosis? I know and understand that my life is going to regularly consist of doctor’s visits, blood draws, scans, and sometimes surgeries. None of this will be easy, and I likely will regress back to the earlier phases more often than not. I truly believe that this phase will involve layers upon layers of events and truths that I need to accept, until I get to the final layer, the core: inner peace.

I have accepted that I have stage 4 breast cancer. It’s not like I have a choice, and I can somehow opt out of this. If I could, I fucking would. (Way too many people say that “cancer is a gift” and if that was true, I’d keep my receipt and return this.) This is my life now, and I can either fight my circumstances or do whatever I can to accept all of this and adapt. It’s not an act of bravery to accept my stage 4 diagnosis. It’s a necessity.

When I dig deeper, there are some hard truths that require reflection and acceptance. I accept the fact that I will die from this disease. I also accept that there is a possibility that I may not see my 50s or my 60s. I have to accept the fact that I may not even see 45, although I do hope that is not the case. This could all be out of my control.

As noted above, I want to achieve inner peace. This disease has forced me to rethink about what my priorities are and what they should be. I, for sure, want to figure out my new plan. I’m not going to figure it all out now. I can’t plan this out. I just have to let go.

This, I promise

Understandably, I have been thinking a lot about my priorities since my oncologist told me my cancer is Stage 4. What do I want to do with whatever time I have left. Don’t get me wrong – my oncologist at no point has told me to start getting my affairs in order and preparing for death.

However, the thing about metastatic cancer is that you have no way of knowing if you’re going to be one that responds well to treatment or poorly to treatment. Right now, as far as we know, the cancer is only in my bones: confirmed in my sternum and possibly in my spine. Cancer is smarter than all of us, and I have no doubt it’s already thinking of where it wants to go next.

As I recover from my surgery, I have been thinking about what I really want to focus on and try to achieve, and what time-sucking activities should I just let go. I hope and I pray that the side effects from the upcoming endocrine therapy will not be so bad so that I can go back to work.

I want to go back to work, I really do. I thrive in a structured environment, and I enjoy having a purpose and teaching others what I know. I’m an internal auditor, which I get isn’t like making scientific breakthroughs or saving lives. I contend that even in the normal, every day jobs, you can always make a difference in someone’s life by small acts. Maybe my enthusiasm for research and dogged determination to figure out the answer will rub off on a fellow coworker?

I also work for a company and a team that know about my stage 4 diagnosis. I truly believe that this company, if possible, will want to help fight against metastatic disease and the criminal underfunding of metastatic breast cancer research. I still have zero desire to be, what I call, cancer famous. If I have to put myself out there, though, to put a face to metastatic breast cancer and the importance of research, I will do it.

This, I promise, is my solemn vow: I am not going to go quietly. Please don’t mistake this statement as some declaration of mine that I’m going to “fight” cancer and win. Cancer is not a battle or a fight, and I’m not going to “beat it” or “win.” It is a deadly disease that will eventually kill me just like it killed my mother (hmm, maybe I shouldn’t be a motivational speaker, eh?).

Two generations of Metastatic Breast Cancer

I intend to make as much noise as I can for as long as I can about the importance of metastatic cancer research and the insidious PTEN mutation that caused my cancer. When I was considered to be an early stager, I was often described as outspoken or very vocal. Well, guess the fuck what… that’s just a preview of what’s to come. Ideas are brewing.

Metastatic breast cancer killed my mother, and I was told I had stage 4 metastatic breast cancer at the same age she was when she died. I was maybe 3 years old when my mother was first diagnosed, so this disease has been a part of my life for more than 3 decades, almost 4. I’ve never wanted to be defined by cancer, but we don’t always get what we want.

I’m not going to go quietly. I plan to do something about this, and it’s not always going to be positivity and rainbows. If I’m angry, I’ll be angry. Same goes for sad, depressed, happy, or hopeful. I’m going to feel all the feelings, and when the time comes for me to meet my mother again, I hope she knows I gave it my all.

Mets Monday: Carolyn

Everyone, please meet my friend, Carolyn.

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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)
METAvivor

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.

Mets Monday: Susan

Susan

When were you diagnosed and at what age?  What type of breast cancer ?

I was diagnosed in August 28th 2013 after a PET/CT scan. I had just turned 43 years.  My cancer is ER/PR+ HER2-. I don’t have the BRCA mutation.20150223315713253

What is life like as a metser?  

My life in a nutshell is all about managing my pain. It’s a full-time job. I take Exemestane, it causes joint pain. However, for me, that pain has caused inflammation in my joints so I’ve had to be on steroids for my knees and I just had injections in the Bursa’s of my hips. Then there is the radiation damage to my right ribs. The lesion caused pain and I had it radiated. In doing that I now have nerve damage and take Cymbalta to help with that. To further complicate things, I have now fractured that particular rib and the pain of that coupled with nerve pain makes it much more than a fractured rib. The pain makes it difficult to breath and move in certain ways. I also take morphine – long and short acting and Tylenol.

Aside from the pain, I try to concentrate on making memories for and with my son so when he looks back he can recall happy times and events and not a ‘sick’ mom.

What type of misconceptions about breast cancer have you encountered? 

I’ve encountered many misconceptions when it comes to breast cancer. The biggest one is that it’s the better” cancer to have and its curable. Curable, it is most definitely not and there is NO such thing as ‘good’ cancer. It all sucks. Personally, the biggest misconception I’ve had to deal with is people saying to me: “You look great!  You don’t look sick at all!!”  I’m not your stereotypical cancer patient. I’ve not lost my hair and I’ve gained weight from meds, not lost as some do. To look at me, you would never know I was dealing with a terminal illness. But on the inside I’m a wreck. Riddled with pain and exhaustion.

The Pink Ribbon has done such a disservice to the entire Breast Cancer community. Instead of educating everyone on the fact that metastatic breast cancer is possible for 30% of those diagnosed early. By cloaking breast cancer in a cloud of “check your breasts, have a mammogram, get your cancer diagnosed early, make it to 5 years and you have been cured forever.” That is simply untrue and some women have a false sense of hope and are very defensive when the metastatic community comes around. Stage 4 people are breast cancer’s dirty little secret. Which is why there is such a lack in funding for research. If you don’t acknowledge it and continue to deny then it’s not happening.

What advice would you give someone who truly does want to help the breast cancer community, especially those with metastatic breast cancer?

For anyone that wants to help the breast cancer community, I would recommend getting educated by other groups aside from Komen. Organizations like: Deadline 2020, METAvivor and LBBC have good information and are pro-research. Understanding that research is the key to a cure and not running races is a huge step in the right direction.

How can someone diagnosed with early stage breast cancer be a good ally to those with stage 4?

Being an ally to metastatic patients means understanding and educating yourself about ALL the breast cancers out there. Everyone’s breast cancer is individual. It’s not like getting the flu and everyone basically has the same symptoms. My ER/PR+ HER2- cancer will be different from someone else’s triple negative. Everyone has different treatment. It’s not one size fits all. No matter what kind of breast cancer someone has everyone should support and get behind research. Research helps us all.