What to expect when you are expecting the worst : living with metastatic breast cancer
I have been leery most of my life about showers. I saw Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho in about 1960 at age 12; my parents were expecting a thriller very like The lady vanishes, and instead got two frightened children who they kept sending to the concession stand but who peeked. So it is probably understandable that it was in the shower where I first discovered my tumor with the size and shape of a Lego brick.
Statistically, I am a likely candidate for breast cancer. My mother had it, the Pacific NorthWest is a hotspot, and the unexpected is regularly sprinkled here and there among us.
Vladimir Putin had just invaded Ukraine at that point in time, February 2014, so naming the tumor Putin was easy. We have comfortably settled into informality; he’s now Vlad to me
Kaiser has a rather impressive army of specialists you see at the start of the adventure. They lay out an array of possible treatments, use jargon like tumor boards and estrogen positive receptors and I highly recommend bringing a scribe with you to any high stress medical encounter. My son and daughter came with me, allowing me to go into a trance, as one does, at the first mention of the word cancer.
There are some dismaying facts and statistics out there. The one in eight rate of women acquiring Breast Cancer isn’t inevitable, but certain sets of the population are genuinely at risk at some point. We can lower the odds of severe outcomes by early diagnosis and body awareness. Many women are the first diagnosed in their families – my mother was one – but many other women are aware of relatives who have struggled over the years.
My impression is that all varieties of the medical profession are still working to definitely know how and why cancer strikes. We know certain activities heighten the risk of disease. Smoking, heavy drinking, excess weight gain, being a down winder from a nuclear reactor, age, genetics and … ?? Diet?? Lifestyles?? Not to increase your paranoia, but infusion nurses have noticed and told me that they are seeing more and younger patients arriving for chemotherapy treatments.
My Vladimir Putin resurrected in 2016 and added some extra spots scattered across my ribs and other bones. So far, the variety of treatments I have received keeps the fires tamped down and my body reasonably functional. I was surprised that treatments aren’t based on Three strikes and you are out as I had assumed. The attention and publicity over the decades have paid off in a huge array of drugs, treatment plans and the tantalizing prospect of breast cancer along with all the other nasty varieties becoming a chronic disease.
Adding to the mysteries surrounding the disease, there are varying statistics by racial background. Diagnosis and treatment are uneven across the nation. Historically, access to studies and medical care has been unequally available across the population. African American women are statistically later to be diagnosed and more susceptible to resistant forms of cancer that really need early diagnosis. After living in the United States for a period of time, both African women and Latino women are reaching statistics similar to the African American experience.
In the last 9 years, the Portland chapter of the Susan G Komen Foundation has worked through the Worship in Pink program to focus on the African American community and to reach out to remind and encourage all populations of women to take proactive steps toward health. Grace Memorial has sponsored the program here over the past 4 to 5 years.
My experience has been one of having many different medicines infused into my veins, working to tamp down the aggression of my tumors. Side effects vary, some challenging others pretty mild. I may never have a normal head of hair again, but then what better excuse for hat shopping? Nurses know how to get you through treatment crises, they really are the best. The unexpected, which always happens has been the warmth, kindness and support of family and friends and neighbors. I feel the caring, I feel the sense of being held up by many. Family with whom I agree about nothing, pray for me. I am so blessed.
Some people have commented that I seem to be rather cheerful about my prospects. The reality for me is that when I was first diagnosed several friends were also treated for other forms of the disease – pancreatic cancer and ovarian cancer. Earlier, a friend had esophageal cancer. These are less common and less publicized maladies, and my friends had more difficult, challenging treatments leading to speedy deaths.
I cannot complain. I have lived well and have a good shot at making it to my goal — to vote in the 2020 election. Everyone needs goals!