I am a stage four metastatic breast cancer patient and survivor. I was diagnosed in April of ’05 and prior to that devastating day I was a very active wife, mother of three, professional with a career going up and I had all kinds of plans. Then one-day things changed for me quite a bit. How this started was I was in my car on the way to work, got into the parking garage, went to get my briefcase out of the back seat and I felt this burning sensation up my back, and I had pulled my back out. Never had any issues with my back prior to, but this particular day was the day that I pulled my back out. I went to a chiropractor for about six weeks and saw some improvement, but nothing significant. The pain was still there so I decided to go to my internist for a second opinion. One test led to another and low and behold, I was diagnosed in April of ’05 with stage four metastatic breast cancer.
I do not have a history of breast cancer in my family, nor do I fit into the mold of what might be considered high risk for breast cancer. There are several areas for that. I was very active, I was actually an aerobics instructor for years and prided myself on taking care of myself, eating well, all those kinds of good things that we try to do. Not only that, I was so ignorant to breast cancer when my oncologist told me Donna you have stage four-breast cancer. I looked at him and just telling you as if I am telling you today, I can relive that moment. I said, okay, well four out of ten isn’t bad right? I remember the look on his face and he said no, Donna that is out of four. That is sort of when the tears started.
However, from that point I decided that I am going to fight it with every ounce of energy that I have and within a week I had a porta-cath surgically put into my chest and I was on chemo. I was on chemo for six months and that treatment was once a week for three weeks and then one week off. I was on a very aggressive chemo, a carboplatin, and taxol combination. My breast cancer was estrogen positive and HER2 positive also, so I was also on herceptin and zometa, which is for the bones. We thought well we‘d see what happens.
I started my regimen and the options were this:
1. The plan entailed that we were hoping at the six month treatment plan would do one of three things – it could either confine the cancer to the breast, and at that point I would then consider surgery
2. Or if there was little progress we would have to consider plan two of chemotherapy treatment
3. Finally, the third thing, the chemo could take care of everything and we would move on to maintenance.
I was very blessed in the fact that my outcome was number three. The chemo took care of everything after three months of being on chemo, and that was half way through my plan of action, I had a PET scan and the PET scan showed a completely clean diagnosis. I will never forget that day because I looked at one PET scan side-by-side, my first one that was at diagnosis time to my second one, and the first one my body lit up like a Christmas tree, and the second one nothing. It was incredible. And truthfully, I think that’s part of what medicines and treatment plans are there for us today and that should be very inspiring to any metastatic breast cancer patient that are listening to tonight’s call.
After that PET scan came through clean, I went through the remainder of my treatment series and cycles and then went on a maintenance plan. When you have metastatic breast cancer, it is never really over. That is why I call myself a patient and a survivor because I can survive this many, many times to come – you really do not know. My maintenance plan for this session was to continue my herceptin, to begin using the medication tamoxifen, and stay on the zometa as well. Every six months I would go in for my PET scan to see if it is working or not working. In February of ’07, so this is 18 months after I diagnosed as cancer free for the time, I had my first reoccurrence. It was a routine PET scan where this recurrence was found and it showed cancer activity in the nodes in the mid-chest area, which is near the sternum. I went back on chemo for another six cycles once a week, and this time they put me on a taxotere. I also kept on with my herceptin and zometa during that time.
I had a PET scan three months after that and once again, I was cancer free. I am currently a cancer free patient and two-time survivor, I guess you could say. My current maintenance plan is herceptin and faslodex. The herceptin is every three weeks; I get faslodex, which is an IM shot, and inter-muscular shot, once a month. I continue with PET scans every six months. I get a muga scan, which is a scan for the heart, every three months, and blood level work done every three months. That is for an eternity, as long as it keeps me cancer free. As a metastatic breast cancer patient, I really have to think about what the future holds for me and the different options that are out there for me when and if this is ever, you know, to come back again.
It truly did change my life, without a doubt, as probably all of you can imagine. I was 46 years old; I was a wife, happily married and still am, mother of three. I guess how I look at it is that I walked around making a lot of assumptions, career assumptions, assumptions that I would see my children’s graduations and weddings and I couldn’t wait to be a grandma, that’s been one of my life’s goals. I think one of the first things that came out of my mouth when I heard that I had cancer, it did not matter what kind, that word cancer was- I am going to be a grandma. My positive attitude helped me along to get me where I am today. I still have that goal, so that is not changing. That I can guarantee you.
My support system was a huge, huge part of my recovery the first time, the second time and if I have to, times in the future. I relied on family and friends quite a bit and probably the hardest part for me on that which sounds a little bit funny that there would be some hard part to that but maybe some of you can relate, is the humbling aspect of having people do for me. That was very difficult. You see, I was the rock of the family. I was the one who planned to help everybody else. It was not supposed to be like this, but it was. Maybe in some unplanned way I needed that humbling. I am glad that I went through it, I really do. It was also very shaping in my life; it shaped the character that I am. As many times, as I would never ever wish this on anybody, there are those good aspects of this type of experience, and one of those is the fact that I was extremely humbled.
The other thing is:
· I do not take things, as literally, I really do not. I do not sweat the small stuff – have you ever heard of those books? I really do not sweat the small stuff.
· If someone is racing by me to get to work on time early in the morning, and he makes really cute hand gestures because I’m not going as fast as he wants me too, which used to bother me to no end – not anymore. I look at him, I watch him pass, and I say, “Oh, I hope you get there safely because I’m just not going there, buddy!” I am just not feeling that.
My plan now is to remain with my glass half-full, never half-empty. I try to cherish every bit of time with my family and friends. I’m not saying I’m always positive, I don’t’ know how I could be. However, you know what, 90% of the time, we have a choice, and 90% of the time, I plan and hope to be positive. There were many, many, many times that I was strong for everybody else. I am sure you know what I mean, that is family and friends and, you know, the day goes by and you just try to pretend maybe that it is not there and late at night and everybody’s sleeping it is a little bit different. You are praying to whomever you know is on your shoulder watching and helping. You somehow get through it. I also have started a support group through my church, which helps me a lot. That personal venture of mine keeps me going. Right now, I continue with my treatments. I will be having another PET scan in September. The hardest part of that is I rather live on a six-month rule. You know, it depends on what happens with that PET scan and what my next course of action is.
What I would really like to share and stress with anyone out there that is a metastatic breast cancer patient or knows and loves someone dear to him or her that is experiencing that is something that my doctor had told me. That is that it is so fortunate that I am going through this if I have to go through this today, because it was so, so different five to 10 years ago. I might not be here today. It is because of the constant research and development that new medications are coming out all the time and it truly is manageable at this point. I cannot say curable, because that is not true , but it is manageable. My doctor tells me that he has about seven different options and plans for me and that there are new things coming out there, for whatever your diagnosis is, whether it is negative, positive, with the estrogen – there are things down the pipe coming out there.
I hope that my story encourages you to stay positive.