Wednesday, October 3, 2018

The reality of metastatic breast cancer.

It's October, which means it's breast cancer awareness month. Those aggravating pink ribbon shirts have already started popping up in stores. I'm now to the point where I only grit my teeth and walk briskly by when I see them. Before, my eyes would fill with tears of rage at the mere thought of them. Progress, I suppose.

Unfortunately, my family members and I are more aware of what breast cancer means than most people. And while many might think it's a "cute" cancer, I'm here to tell you it's not. It's ugly, it's painful, it's humiliating and it's very often deadly. And on that last point -- you're not as in control of your fate as you think you are. The cancer is in charge. Make no mistake about it.

When my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer in December 2014, the initial prognosis wasn't too bad. Stage 2, they'd told her. She'd need a mastectomy, chemotherapy, radiation, etc. The usual. It would be terrifying and brutally hard, but she'd get through it. We'd all help her. Family, friends and strangers rallied around her, bringing care packages and meals. Wigs were in her future. Maybe I'd shave my head to show support as she lost her hair.

We'd seen this story play out time and time again for many other women, and it would be the same for my mom.

Except, there was this lingering feeling I couldn't shake -- my maternal grandmother had already succumbed to the disease nearly five years prior. Her mother, my great-grandmother, died from breast cancer at age 56. Deep down, I knew where this was really going. I just didn't expect it to happen so quickly.

A few weeks after my parents gathered us in their family room to break the news the first time, I got a call from my mom -- it was actually stage IV cancer. It had metastasized, and not in a way that is treatable. It was all over her skeletal system.

There would be no surgery. No chemo. No hair loss, no nausea and vomiting, no debilitating side effects from the treatments which make cancer notoriously unbearable. A cruelly ironic silver lining we'd all have gladly traded for a cancer that could be treated.

Instead, her oncologist attempted to prolong her life by prescribing hormone blockers to prevent the cancer from spreading as quickly as it would otherwise. That was the best they could do. They gave her 2 - 5 years to live.

The first year was almost normal. Aside from knowing she had terminal cancer, my mom frequently expressed that she felt no different than she had before. She even saw her markers go down, and some of the cancerous lesions shrank.

Then, around the beginning of the second year, the hormone blockers stopped working, and that was that. Slowly but surely, the disease progressed, sapping the life out of my mom day by day. Radiation -- the only treatment option to help with the excruciating pain in her hips -- fried her bowels to the point she couldn't keep any food down. (So much for avoiding the nausea and vomiting that come with chemotherapy.) She spent a lot of time in the hospital trying to rehydrate and regain the ability to be nourished, but for every step forward, it seemed she'd take several back.

My mom wasted away. She starved. Within months, she lost the ability to speak correctly and she lost her vision. She couldn't control her bowels anymore. She got thinner and thinner until there was nearly nothing left of her. She couldn't walk anymore. She was in a hospital bed. She couldn't answer calls or respond to texts. She was on pain killers around the clock. She was asleep more than she was awake.

And then, she died. Just like her mother and grandmother before her.

My family in December 2016, less than one month before my mom passed away.

This is what breast cancer awareness month fails to address -- metastatic breast cancer. Did you know breast cancer can spread to other parts of your body? I can't tell you how many times people I'd discuss my mom's case with would say to me, "It was in her bones? I thought your mom had breast cancer."

That's the thing about cancer -- it's complicated. It starts in one place and then spreads to other organs and parts of the body in different ways. You can't fix it by simply removing the breast tissue and replacing it with implants. It's not as easy as going through chemo, losing your hair for a few months and then happily ringing a congratulatory bell to signify you're in remission.

But the weird thing is, in the worst case, it is simple. Stupidly simple:

When you're stage IV, you're terminal. There's nothing left to do but die. Slowly. In diverse, painful ways. But, you're going to die, and that's that.

You don't get to buy a wig or a cute scarf. You don't get to ring a bell. People don't know how to help you. They don't know what to say. You are a ticking time bomb.

This is a chapter of the breast cancer story many people aren't even aware of. So, I write this blog post not to be morbid, but to help you understand -- to bring awareness.

Here's what you need to know: 1 in 8 women develop breast cancer during their lifetime. If you don't detect breast cancer early, you could die. So, make sure you conduct regular self-exams. The provided link tells you what to feel AND look for, because it's more than just lumps (with my mom, the cancer presented as an odd fold in her breast tissue).

And, if you feel a lump that doesn't show up on a mammogram, pursue further testing. This is KEY. My mom's lump never showed up on routine mammograms, and actually, 10 percent of breast cancers don't. It was eventually found through an ultrasound exam, and far too late.

I HATE that I lost my mother to breast cancer. I hate it. It's been almost 21 months that she's been gone. I miss her even more now than I did the day she left this earth, which is kind of weird to imagine if you've never lost someone.

But, I've learned some things from this real-life nightmare. One of those things is breast cancer isn't fancy, cute, or sexy -- it's serious, and it can kill you. It's devastating. So please, take care of yourselves. If something feels off or looks strange, go to the doctor. Don't wait or think it will resolve itself. It won't.

And if you don't care if you get cancer or not? Perform your checks for someone who does care -- your spouse, your children, your parents, your siblings, your friends. I wouldn't wish the loss of a loved one to cancer on anyone.

This October, there will be no pink ribbons for me; just the painful reality that my vibrant, hilarious and beautiful mother's life was cut short by breast cancer. But if I can help even one person avoid dying this way, then telling this sad story is worthwhile to me. Do your checks, and if you see something, say something. That's all I ask.

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