I am 74 years old and I have lived over 40% of my life with metastatic breast cancer. Yes…for 30 years I have been living with this disease.
My cancer story begins at age 39. I was single, living with my 13 year old son, had just started a new job and I found a lump in my breast. This was 1974, just 3 years after President Nixon declared a war on cancer…and information about breast cancer was practically non-existent. People didn’t even say the word cancer aloud – it was whispered. I was the only breast cancer story I knew. I had a mastectomy followed by radiation.
Four years later I developed a persistent cough and I coughed violently for a full year before I heard the words that the cancer had spread to my lung. I relied on my doctorate in biology to help me understand my disease. There was no internet then, so I poured thru books to educate myself. I had my ovaries removed, the cough stopped. It was like a miracle. I was able to be optimistic because my doctor was optimistic…and I had support from a women’s cancer group and I was part of a co-counseling community.
In 1983 when I developed difficulty swallowing, it was found that I had an enlarged lymph node in my throat…. and I began tamoxifen. I was able to work, have an active life, I ran a couple of races, exercised a lot, looked into all kinds of approaches to treating cancer, and learned about different types of diet. Those were excellent years for me, though of course, every time I went for tests, I worried – a lot.
Tamoxifen served me well – for 17 years. It’s a long time, I know…but not long enough. Nothing lasts forever – and in the metastatic world that is our biggest fear…knowing the treatment will stop working…wondering what happens next. The fear never goes away.
In 2001, I noticed some changes in my breathing and scans showed a spot on my lung. I was switched to a different hormonal treatment. Then, three years ago, the mets spread to my liver, lung, and bones. I wish there had been more hormonal options available…but it was not so. Chemo, radiation…with the attending side-effects and damage to my esophagus, became the focus of my days. These years have been the hardest. I’ve been going from one chemo to another, not knowing if they would work, losing much of my sense of taste, losing weight and dealing with overwhelming fatigue… feeling lonely and scared. The last 2 chemos failed me … BUT… Doxil, so far, appears to be working…and…as a bonus…I’m not losing my hair.
Over the years I have frequently been asked what special medical treatment I’ve had that’s enabled me to live so long with mets… and…I believe I’m lucky that my cancer is not super aggressive…I’m lucky that the cancer has responded so well to hormonal treatments…and I’m so very fortunate to have my oncologist…we’ve been a team for 30 years. I also believe the unwavering support of both my lifelong partner and my son have been vital to my well-being.
I have a strong will to live and I look forward to better times and less toxic treatments for us all.
Editor’s note: Rita passed away on December 25, 2009.