I reached a milestone yesterday. It happens to most people in their forties, eventually. But, in 2005 and 2006, I wasn’t sure if I would be around long enough to have to deal with it.
During chemo, my doctors ordered one CT scan too many, found some “suspicious” nodules in my lungs, and thought that the breast cancer had gone metastatic. From August 2005 through February 2006, I lived in that place modern medicine has created when tests give some scary information, but they don’t give enough information to confirm a diagnosis. Was treatment going to cure me, or had the cancer already spread to my organs?
Out of respect for the many women I know who have metastatic breast cancer, I don’t want them to feel even more ostracized than many already feel. No one wants to have metastatic cancer, and many women who do have metastatic cancer feel invisible in survivor communities, because they will never be done with treatment. These sisters have “fought” breast cancer in initial treatment, but because it has traveled to other parts of their body, it is a chronic disease that they must live with every day. My friend Pam wrote about it here in her article “Metastatic Women are Stranded in a Sea of Pink.”
But I hope that women who do have metastatic breast cancer would acknowledge that one’s outlook on life is different when you hope and think that the cancer will be cured after treatment, than when you know that you will live with it until the day you die. Maybe that shouldn’t be the way it is, we should all live in the present and not worry about the future. But that’s so much easier said than done when your mind starts careening around the horrible possibilities. There’s got to be some kind of resignation and mourning when you accept the metastatic diagnosis and the fact that you will never be “cured” of breast cancer.
Living in that limbo, not knowing which category I fit into, was probably the worst time of my life because I can’t stand uncertainty. Even if I don’t know what will happen, I need to plan my response. If A happens, then I will X. If B, then Y. All of the possibilities during that time were too upsetting to think about.
If I was metastatic, then what was I doing going to work every day and sending my precious baby to daycare? I needed to spend as much time making memories with her and for her. I needed to write that book. If I was going to emerge from treatment, then I needed to get working so that I would be able to practice law when it was all done. These were two totally different things, and I wasn’t able to resolve how I handled it. I cried whenever I drove for more than five minutes in the car, got into a bad relationship, went on a cruise and broke up with him, saw a therapist, fought with my parents and was generally a pain in the ass.
But then, I was lucky. After several months, the nodules didn’t change. Blood tests showed no elevated cancer activity. I went on with my life, moved out of my parents’ house (again), got a job in Indianapolis, walked a mini-marathon, and bought a house. The best doctor I could find told me that if those nodules had been cancer, I would have had symptoms by then. I didn’t get metastatic, although I watched as many friends did. There was no rhyme or reason as to who did and who didn’t.
For me, life went on. My daughter started school, and Girl Scouts, and basketball. I started listening to myself better than I ever had before. Thoughts of cancer recurring faded into the background.
In a few months, I will reach the eight-year anniversary of my diagnosis. For the kind of breast cancer I was lucky enough to have (it’s all a crapshoot), eight years is considered a kind of “holy grail” of time from treatment. The chances of recurrence drop to almost nothing. They don’t ever use the term “cured” with breast cancer, but the odds of recurrence I will have eight years after diagnosis with triple-negative breast cancer are about as good as anyone who has had breast cancer will get. This article even says that “women with triple-negative breast cancer who are disease-free for 8 years are unlikely to die of breast cancer.”
I’m almost there.
And today I received my first pair of bifocals . . . excuse me . . . progressive eyeglass lenses.
Woohoo! I’ve lived long enough to officially be old!