What numbers have significance to you? Maybe it's the phone number of an old friend. Maybe it's the street address of the house where you grew up. When people ask about my 18-month old son, the conversation almost always starts with, "How old is Henry now?"
Numbers define the world around us, so no surprise they also help define our cancers. Size of tumor? Number of cancerous lymph nodes? How many chemo drugs? And the scariest, most anticipated number of all--what's your stage?
This week I visited with a friend and new member of the cancer club. He has a very positive attitude about life and a strong belief system, and both served him well during the initial shock of his diagnosis. But after surgery, my friend struggled to cope with his newest significant number--his cancer stage.
Medical professionals spend years studying cancer before they enter the field, but a new patient has only days to get up to speed. I was a 29-year old newlywed when I was first diagnosed with breast cancer, and I remember feeling so confused when I looked into the mirror. "I don't look sick! The doctors tell me I have a life-threatening disease, but are they sure?"
After a bilateral mastectomy, I was labeled STAGE TWO, forcing me to realize I didn't have something normal like the flu or chicken pox; I had scary stuff that meant hospital stays and chemotherapy. Assigning a number to my cancer put it into tangible terms that I can understand without a medical degree, allowing me to better process the situation.
How did you react when you were staged? Did it make you feel better or worse about your diagnosis?
Things have changed a lot in the four years since I started down this path, and I don't care much for the terms of my new significant number. I don't often tell people I am now STAGE FOUR simply because we all know the stigma attached. How many of you just cringed when reading the words "STAGE FOUR?"
But do you want to know a secret? I still just see me when I look into the mirror--I don't see my scarlet number, and I would prefer you don't see it either.
Before my initial diagnosis, I thought the stage of someone's cancer described how likely the person was to survive the fight. While other people may think FOUR measures my odds, I prefer to think of it as a tool for determining the course of treatment. Doctors tell us cancer is individualized, so let's stop wasting so much energy worrying about staging and concentrate on the task at hand--slaying the two-headed monster, in whatever form he has presented himself to you.
A friend once told me the lottery was for ignorant people, and if I knew the odds of winning, I wouldn't play. But when the odds aren't stacked in your favor, are you going to stop playing the game? I know I will keep playing – because somebody has to be that lucky fool, right?
Carrie Corey is a wife, mom and metastatic breast cancer survivor. She will be reporting in frequently on her journey. You can find her on twitter at @carriemcorey.