The day I got the diagnosis that my cancer had returned and spread to my bones, I went home on crutches, lost my balance, and broke my leg.
Cancer was the last thing on anyone’s mind, because my initial experience had been so (relatively) positive. In 1999, at age 39, I found a lump in my left breast. A small, stage1 tumor, it had no lymph node involvement. Treatment included a lumpectomy, 6 rounds of CMF chemotherapy and 6 weeks of radiation at Swedish Medical Center - Providence Campus’s Comprehensive Breast Center. Developing lymphedema in my affected arm was a constant reminder of breast cancer but I managed to cope.
Not quite four years later, I had been complaining of pain in my thigh for several weeks, and thought it might be from a sports injury. When physical therapy didn’t help, I saw an orthopedist. This doctor took an x-ray and suspected metastatic breast cancer.
Later that same day I was rushed to the hospital with a pathological fracture of my left femur. A bone scan revealed metastases to the bones in the back of my skull, sternum, spine and both femurs. I underwent an emergency hip pinning to repair the fracture and began taking femara (letrozole), an anti-hormonal breast cancer treatment. I also began receiving monthly infusions of aredia and then zometa (pamidronates) to strengthen my bones. Several weeks of radiation therapy to both femurs and my skull reduced pain from the metastases.
The recuperation from a hip pinning due to pathologic fracture is lengthy. In my case, almost 5 months passed before I was able to place enough weight on the injured leg to walk with a cane. Then I had the right hip pinned to prevent another fracture. I began to see a naturopathic physician to improve my overall health, who prescribed a number of vitamins and supplements.
It also turned out that a constant, nagging cough was probably a small metastasis in my lung.
During this time I experienced overwhelming distress at my cancer’s recurrence with metastatic disease. I cried buckets of tears with my husband, family, and friends. However, the support of those who love me enough to supply companionship and food helped me realize that I wasn’t dying today. Swedish Medical Center’s Providence Campus Comprehensive Breast Center’s staff psychiatrist, Dr. Judith Lipton, gave me new perspective on living with cancer (and better living through chemistry!). Writing in a journal, even for 15 minutes a day, helped me explore my feelings and find meaning in my cancer experience. A weekly support group for people with advanced cancer, monthly support group of young women with breast cancer, and on-line support of women living with “mets,” as we call it, brought me to new communities of people walking in the same shoes. Getting a service dog helped me navigate my “new normal.”
Today, 3.5 years after my mets diagnosis, I am (fortunately) still stable on aromatase inhibitors. I continue to receive a monthly infusion of zometa. I take numerous vitamins and supplements. I have little pain from the mets, but have been treated with additional radiation therapy on my right hip and both humerii. The cough disappeared almost immediately after beginning treatment. Scans indicate stable disease, but I live with the realities of advanced cancer on a daily basis.
During this time I experienced significant losses:
• Medical retirement from my profession as a fundraiser;
• Applying for and receiving Social Security Disability and the accompanying loss of income;
• Accepting that my husband and I would likely never become parents. (Five birth mothers chose to keep their babies after they were born. Because of my cancer we could not adopt from another country, and were denied participation in our state’s “foster-to-adopt” program.)
I also identified and achieved life goals:
• Wrote a will, medical directives and a living will, outlining my personal philosophy;
• Traveled with my husband to Paris to visit family and to Israel for a reunion;
• Rescued a cocker spaniel, which then became my service animal;
• Bought our first house;
• Identified opportunities for volunteer work in breast cancer patient advocacy.
My philosophy? “Dum vivimus, vivamus: while we live, let us live!” Life is precious, and in a very real sense, we all have the same amount of time -- today.