"It's cancer," are the two words that nobody ever wants to hear. I have heard them three times before my 35th birthday. The first time was in 1995, at age 14, during the summer before my freshman year of high school, when I was diagnosed with leukemia. I spent my first two years of high school on a very intense chemotherapy protocol, and during my prime teenage years I was bald, bloated, and constantly sick. I went into remission and after my treatment was over, I was able to move on with my life. I graduated high school on time, went to college and graduate school, and begin building a career in New York City. While I had a label of 'cancer survivor,' I never really dwelled on what that meant or shared it with those outside my close circle of friends. As time passed, my memories of living in cancer-land faded.
But then, almost 20 years later, my world was rocked again in May, 2013 when I heard those two words for the second time. While putting on a bra, I felt a lump in my left breast that seemed to appear overnight. Keeping my past history in mind, I knew to have it checked out right away. After a whirlwind of mammograms, biopsies, doctor appointments, and scans, 6 days before my 33 birthday, I was diagnosed with triple-positive stage IV breast cancer. The aggressive disease had already left my breast and set up shop in four lymph nodes, my sternum, and my lungs. My oncologist used the phrase 'treatable but not curable' and that in my case, treatable meant more chemotherapy. Having gone through it before and knowing what to expect was both a blessing and a curse.
I started a regimen of weekly Taxol, and Herceptin and Perjeta every three weeks, which knocked out a lot of the disease. When that stopped working for me after 9 months, I moved on to Kadcyla and it seemed like I would be able to stay on that for the long haul.
Six months after starting Kadcyla, in July 2015, I got to hear "It's cancer," for the third (and hopefully last) time. A recent PET scan had showed something new in the same left breast, while the rest of my body had no evidence of disease. After some back and forth, a biopsy was done and the mass was determined to be a triple-negative breast cancer. My doctors believe that it was a different mutation of the same bad cells and had been hiding along. In other words, a new primary breast cancer. I got to have the extremely rare distinction of having an early-stage and an advanced-staged breast cancer co-existing all at once.
Since July I have been on a regimen of Gemzar, carboplatin and Herceptin and a recent scan showed regression of the breast mass and stable everywhere else. I just passed my year and half anniversary of being diagnosed with breast cancer (for the first time), and while the path has been far from easy, I still have been able to continue to live my life as best as I can. I still work full-time, travel (I just got back from 10 days in Hawaii!), and spend time with friends and family. And sometimes the most fun things for me are doing errands and chores, because that is what a normal 34-year-old single woman does. I have even started to think about dating again, so if anybody knows of any great single guys in NYC who are willing to deal with a lot of baggage just let me know!
Yes, I get tired and my body gets stiff, and on those days, nothing is better than hunkering down in my apartment with take-out and a Law and Order marathon.
After a lot of research and talking with various doctors, many oncologists are starting to see a trend of secondary cancers in adult survivors of childhood cancers. This is an area that is starting to be explored, and I have participated in -- and continue to be a part of -- numerous research studies on the topic, in order to hopefully help a future generation of cancer survivors. Sometimes I feel like a living science experiment, but the point is I am a living one.