My own personal fight is still waging. I’m a Stage IV survivor, which means the battle will last for the remainder of my life, which could turn out to be considerably shortened if my current remission ends.
Early detection is the most effective weapon we currently have in our arsenal for fighting cancer. In spite of my positive attitude about my disease, I can never escape the nagging reality in my own case that I would have been completely free of cancer following a simple medical procedure if only I had gone to see the doctor the first time I discovered that lump. In retrospect, my four month delay was inexcusable. I didn’t think it was serious. But so what? What is the point of waiting to take care of an issue like that even if it turns out not to be serious?
I’m encouraging all women to become more aware of their bodies and alert for any changes that might signal the onslaught of something. Go see a doctor! Don’t wait, hoping it will go away! Most of the time, of course, these things really do go away, but it’s like playing Russian roulette. When a chamber comes up with a loaded shell in it, you’ll be so sorry that you ever played the stupid game!
Five of us women, all in some stage of breast cancer, have joined together to do something to help other women avoid this horrible disease. Our current project is to get California to join the 44 other states that have issued a pink breast cancer awareness license plate. We can’t imagine a more effective, non-intrusive reminder than having thousands of vehicles, at all hours of every day on all California highways, bearing these brightly colored plates, each of them with the words EARLY DETECTION SAVES LIVES. Proceeds from every sale will go to the state’s Every Woman Counts program.
For Pink Plates to become reality, we had to get a bill passed by the State Senate. None of us were experienced with the way state politics operated. We went to Sacramento and began pounding on doors. We were met with countless refusals by people who couldn’t understand what we were asking for, people who scoffed at the idea, and some who openly laughed in our faces. Finally, Assemblywoman Joan Buchanan was gracious enough to help us get Bill AB-49 going. Governor Brown signed it into law September 2014. Pink Plates cost $50, with another $98 for a vanity plate.
The challenge is that the law will go away and not a single plate will be made unless we get 7,500 prepaid orders by the end of July. By Valentine’s Day we still needed to sell more than a thousand.
In 2007, when I was 39 years old, I found a lump in my right breast. I didn’t imagine it would be a problem. I had no family history of cancer, didn’t know anybody with breast cancer, and wasn’t even old enough for a mammogram. Furthermore, the lump was causing some discomfort. I had heard that malignant tumors were painless so imagined that the lump was a fibroid cyst. I put off seeing my doctor for four months and only scheduled an exam when the lump grew to noticeable size and finally caused so much pain that I was unable to use a seatbelt. When the lump was finally examined at Kaiser Walnut Creek, the medical staff performed a biopsy and a week later let me know that I, in fact, had breast cancer.
Even then my doctor didn’t think there was cause for alarm and scheduled me for what he imagined would be a simple lumpectomy. However, he discovered that cancer cells from my golf ball size tumor had spread to 14 lymph nodes. His prognosis sank from hopeful to hopeless, and he told me that I probably couldn’t expect to live longer than two years.
The devastating news felt like being struck by a speeding locomotive. In a single day, the harmony and peace of my life with my husband Dave and our three sons was shattered into pieces. Our oldest son was ten at the time; our twin boys were eight. The most difficult part of the experience was telling my three young children that their mother was going to die. Perhaps I was more disturbed by the prospect than they were, because I felt they were too young to be motherless.
Fortunately, once they learned the diagnosis, Kaiser swung into high gear and within a week I was meeting with an oncologist, Dr. Rakesh Bhutani, who set me up for a PET scan. They injected me with a dye containing radioactive tracers and the scan revealed the places in organs and tissues that had absorbed the tracers. Cancer cells responded to the tracers so they appeared on the scan as bright areas. The cancer had metastasized and was now lodged in my liver, spleen, breastbone, tailbone, and lungs. After seeing my scan the doctor informed me that my body had lit up like a Christmas tree.
That was terrifying news, of course, but Dr. Bhutani was absolutely wonderful. “No one has an expiration date on their life,” he told me, and put me on an eight-month chemo regime. Rather than passing away in fewer than two years, according to the first dire prediction, within eight months the cancer was in total remission.
That was ten years ago. However, even though I’m still in remission, thank God, nobody is ever completely cured of Stage IV Breast Cancer. The malignant cells are still spread throughout my body even though they are temporarily in a passive state. I take a pill every day and every three weeks go to the hospital for a series of shots, pills, and an “infusion” administered intravenously through a permanent port that was placed under the skin below my right collarbone.
The cancer cells are kept in their dormant state because of a drug called Herceptin that attaches itself to receptors on cancer cells and blocks them from growing. The worst part of my treatment is the damage that the medicine does to my heart creating symptoms similar to congestive heart failure. As a result, I have a heart scan every three months that generates a number representing the current state of my heart health. When the number drops below a certain threshold, I will no longer be able to take the medicine that is currently keeping the cancer in remission. That will inevitably happen at some point. Fortunately, according to my doctor, I’m breaking some local records for tolerating Herceptin.
It won’t necessarily be a death sentence when I finally have to stop taking the drug. My heart will regenerate itself and then I’ll go back to it. There are a lot of other cancer treatments but my doctor won’t investigate until forced to do so because Herceptin is working fine at the moment.
Cancer cells feed upon estrogen, so the doctor placed me on a drug called Lupron that destroys the hormone, in effect forcing my body into menopause. My skin is aging, my muscles are losing tone, and my libido is low. The most notable effect is a loss of stamina. Before my illness I owned a housecleaning business but no longer have sufficient physical strength to do the work. Cleaning my own house became difficult, so we sold our nice place in Discovery Bay and moved into a smaller home in Brentwood. The other reason for downsizing is the transition we had to make to a single-income family from our former two-income status.
Life is good! I have no complaints. The smaller and simpler lifestyle is wonderful. I can be at home when the kids leave for school, be there when they get back, and spend evenings and weekends with them.
We always remain upbeat and positive. However, we have a clear-eyed acceptance of the fact that for all the plans and preparations my doctor is making, the cancer could recur at any moment. The end could come at any time, and it could be swift. We’re preparing for the reality that Dave might become the head of a single-parent family and getting life organized so Dave can carry on in my absence, when and if that should become necessary.
Dave has been a tremendous help. As a man, it’s been difficult for him to accept that he can’t solve this. But he’s my support; he keeps me strong. Dave and the kids worry and fret when I go in for one of my every-three-month scans. They are hoping and praying that the important number will be high enough to permit me to continue with the life-saving Herceptin. However, the disease has had a spiritually enriching effect on me. For example, Dave and I are closer than ever. We no longer take things for granted.
The cancer is terrible, of course. But I’ve always been a woman of faith and believe in my heart that God has given me cancer for a reason. I have ceased worrying about or stressing about it. Cancer has opened my eyes to see things in the world about me that I never noticed before. I have a new appreciation for the minutes and hours that rush by knowing now how quickly the stream can be halted and how tenuous our grasp on life actually is. Moments with my family and with my husband; sitting by the window in my breakfast nook; laughing at a funny thing Dave said…. These now have a rich quality that they would never have possessed if I had remained perfectly healthy.
Cancer has also brought me into contact with some amazing people. Many of them are women battling the disease. They are fighters and they are inspiring me. Since beginning my battle with cancer I’ve learned to trust in God in a new and more complete fashion. I have always been an avid planner and organizer. I expended a lot of energy in trying to maintain tight control over my time and my family’s activities. But that’s over. I realize that I’m not in control; someone else has His hand on the steering wheel. The realization has come as a release, making me free to enjoy the ride; giving me permission to be happy with whatever happens.
The biggest change in my spirit is a fierce desire — and even a calling — to do everything I can to enable other women to avoid the trials and tough times that I’ve gone through. In particular, I am working hard to educate them into making better choices than I made.
When Pink Plates is behind me, I’ll find something else. God will open other doors. He will give me something more. I’m not done yet.