A routine mammogram picked up my initial breast cancer in 1994 when I was 44 years old. Stunned, of course, because neither the doctor nor I could feel any lump, I was drawn into the cancer vortex. A lumpectomy and 6 cycles of chemotherapy and radiation filled the next 7 months. At the end of all that, my prognosis was good and I was hopeful.
After 6 years of ‘all clear”, I had pain in my shoulder and attributed it to “middle aged woman out of shape”. My oncologist had been following me and watching tumor markers, which now had gone up. And now Part II began. Since March 2001, I have been on a host of hormonal and chemotherapy agents, with varying effectiveness and side effects. Environmental Protection Agency may consider me a personal chemical waste dump. I have outlived the odds and hope that new treatments are being discovered. I am just about to start a clinical trial.
When I was first diagnosed 14 years ago, I was certainly scared. But I had the benefit of getting diagnosed at a time when cancer was discussed and was not assumed to be an immediate death sentence. At the same time as breast cancer was getting more attention, more funding, and more corporate involvement, the proliferation of the pink ribbons had some “down sides.” Women’s magazines featured celebrities and other women with breast cancer, attesting to how having the disease had changed their lives for the better. They viewed the world differently, they had found meaning in whatever, and life was happier as a result of their cancer. While I wouldn’t dictate anyone’s feelings, the pink ribbon overkill seems to have led to a romanticization of breast cancer. It’s awfully pretty for a highly terminal illness. In short, my retort to the warm fuzzies of the ribbon set is this: “Cancer is a growth, not a growth experience.”
Now that I have metastatic disease, the romantic view of breast cancer is even harder to swallow. When we herald breast cancer month, let us be sure to speak of the full continuum of breast cancer patients – those with early disease and those with stage IV and everyone in between. There is much to celebrate, but much to do to find a cure for all of us.