Living with incurable breast cancer
I am here this evening to speak to you about my experience LIVING with incurable breast cancer. I want to highlight in bold and capital the word LIVING.
In 2005, at age 38, I was diagnosed with early breast cancer – stage 2a to be specific. At that time, I did the “all-inclusive” package of treatments – that is 8 cycles of chemo; radiation for 5 weeks; and was then put on hormone therapy. Within nine months of my initial diagnosis, I was able to go my merry way and back to my normal life.
In 2007, two years after my first diagnosis, my cancer returned and this time it had metastasized to other parts of my body – namely, to some vital organs and my bones. Thus, I was now considered stage 4 which means I now had advanced breast cancer and my cancer was no longer curable. At this stage, doctors can only try to control further spreading of the disease through chemo.
In essence, with a diagnosis of stage 4 breast cancer it basically equates to chemo for life for me. In the past 2 years, I’ve tried 5 different chemo treatments; the first chemo did not work very well because the cancer continued spreading. However, the second treatment helped stabilize and stopped the cancer from proliferating for 11 months! As is usually the case, cancer cells eventually grow resistance to chemo and when they do, that particular chemo no longer works and then we simply change treatments.
Regrettably, the chemo treatment list is not an endless list – unfortunately, after we’ve exhausted the entire inventory, doctors will no longer be able to do much else for me except make my remaining days as comfortable as possible. It’s something I have accepted but it doesn’t mean that the chemo options that are still available to me won’t be successful for many more years to come.
Living with incurable breast cancer is slightly different from when I was first diagnosed with early breast cancer. When you are told that your cancer can no longer be cured and that they can only TRY to control it – of course it made me feel very sad.
However, I came to quickly realize that even having stage 4 incurable breast cancer – it did not mean that I was given an immediate death sentence. When I was first diagnosed six years ago, I had this great fear about the cancer returning. I was always worried about a cancer recurrence because I did not know that there were still many viable options available should it come back. I was blown-away by the medical innovations and the many chemo treatments that exist for advanced breast cancer. It has already been four years that I have been living with breast cancer that I know will never go away and will progressively get worse. You may wonder what this diagnosis has meant for me. How have I been able to cope? And how does one deal living with a terminal illness?
Living with incurable breast cancer is like living with a chronic disease – like diabetes. It simply becomes part of you and you learn to live with it. The treatments become part of your regular routine. You learn to mitigate the side-effects mainly through medications. And it hasn’t stopped me from living! On the contrary, it has made me truly live each day to the fullest. I don’t put off doing things. I especially love to travel and boy do I rack up those air miles.
I had to stop working because my chemo treatments are on a weekly basis. It was difficult for me to put my career on hold because my work was my life. It was tough to put aside my highly ambitious corporate dreams (you’re talking to an MBA graduate – we’re very competitive and always strive to be at the top of the corporate ladder) but I had to do whatever it took to give my body a fighting chance. So I decided that this time I would stay home and take care of myself.
I don’t spend my days worrying about death – because that would be such a waste of my time and energy. Why be consumed about something that is out of my control when I could be utilizing that time travelling, seeing shows, spending time with my family and friends, and simply enjoying my life! I LOVE life and I enjoy living it every day! My activities consist basically doing things that give me great pleasure. Just like I’m greatly enjoying being here this evening.
I am fully aware that I probably won’t be around to be an old lady, but I also choose not to harp on this point. I choose to focus on things I can control – such as doing my treatments, listening to my body if it needs rest, taking my medications, and so on. I do acknowledge the things I don’t have power over, but I don’t dwell on them. For me, time is a luxury I can’t afford to squander so why waste it worrying about something that is beyond my control.
Living with incurable breast cancer has also made me more appreciative of birthdays. I often hear people complain that they’re turning 40 or they are turning 50 and how hard it is for them to accept that they are getting older. Well, my response to these individuals is that they should be grateful that they have been given the opportunity to grow old. Every time my birthday comes around, it feels like a new stripe gets added to my lapel – it feels like I have been awarded for surviving another year. And let me tell you, I wear my many birthday stripes with great pride!
In 2005, I read Lance Armstrong’s book about his battle with cancer and in there he mentions that getting cancer was a gift. A Gift – I thought what kind of present is getting cancer!!! I realized over time that the gift Lance was talking about was that cancer patients get to see firsthand how WE ARE ALL mortal. When you are living with a terminal sickness, time becomes more tangible because it no longer is infinite. You truly understand and appreciate that life does not go on forever so you make the most of each precious moment that is bestowed upon you.
People constantly put off doing things they can do today – they’ll say oh well tomorrow I’ll go visit family; or next year I’ll take that trip to Europe that I have been longing to do; next week I will quit smoking; or one day soon I will get out the courage to get out of this terrible, abusive relationship – but everyone’s time is limited and no one knows if they will be here tomorrow – so make the most of your life today.
To quote American historian and author Alice Morse Earle, she said – “The clock is running. Make the most of today. Yesterday is history. Tomorrow is a mystery. Today is a gift, that’s why it’s called the present”. So, today, be grateful for what you have. Today, spend time with your family and friends. Today, take a moment to pamper yourself. Don’t waste precious time – live each day as if it were your last. That’s my philosophy as a cancer survivor!
In Loving Memory
By Grazia Poliseno
October 1966 – July 2011