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Colleen: Wrestling Alligators

Since the day I was diagnosed with Stage 4 metastatic breast cancer in February 2007, I have been wrestling alligators. Not literally, of course, but figuratively as I step away from my family and friends to receive difficult treatments and tests, face harsh news and look deep into my soul. I have no formal training wrestling alligators; I’ve never studied technique. But here I am, fighting matches and celebrating hard won victories.

I was dumbfounded when I was diagnosed with Stage 4 breast cancer. I couldn’t believe that at age 44, after lifelong vigilance about my health and steadfastly showing up for regular mammograms and sonograms, I not only had cancer, but it had metastasized throughout my bones. I had bought into the battle cry for early detection and tried to practice it. How could this be?

Pain in my hand, neck and back, not a lump in my breast, got me to the hospital for an MRI. By the time my cancer was detected, the horse was out of the barn and surgery to remove it was no longer an option. I had my ovaries removed to reduce the estrogen in my body. I began an aromatase inhibitor to slow the progression of the disease and medication to reduce or delay bone damage from the cancer.

It’s been a rough road and along the way I have tried to expand my options by exploring ways to supplement my traditional medical treatments. I believed that as odd as my diagnosis had been, my cure would be just as odd. In February 2008, one year after diagnosis, I started on a more holistic approach to my disease which included the same medical treatment but added spiritual, naturopathy, nutritional and mind-body medicine as well. With this more integrative approach, I feel much more empowered and optimistic.

Early in 2011, I learned the cancer had somehow morphed into Triple Negative. I later learned that cancer is untrustworthy enough to figure out how to get around the treatments we throw at it! I started a course of chemotherapy that landed me bald and stuck on the couch. I spent some time in a hospice facility in May of that year (fabulous place, by the way). Waving my white flag and saying “no more chemo!”; subsequent scans in October yielded a visit from our boy NED (no evidence of disease). Unfortunately, NED dumped me, and in January, 2012, scans indicated that the cancer was, indeed, back. I’ve managed to continue to avoid chemo to this point, and have been working full time since December.

While I’m busy living (travelling, working and raising two teenagers), I also find time to regularly share my story through a viral network of friends and family that has morphed into a global “newsletter.” I write magazine and newspaper articles about my experience and how I LIVE with late stage cancer. I even participated in a public service announcement that’s aired on television.

Each one of us is only a test away from being told we have late stage cancer. I want my daughter and her generation to have more hope and more options so they don’t have to wrestle the alligators.