This month marks 30 years since I heard the words, “You have breast cancer.” Thirty years! It doesn't seem possible. And in other ways, it does seem very possible because it has become harder and harder for me to remember a time when cancer wasn't part of who I am.
I was only 37 when I heard those words, and at 67, it means that for almost half of my life, I have been a cancer survivor.
The clarity of those few days is remarkable. I can still very easily see my kitchen in detail and my 1-year-old daughter, Kirtley, standing in front of a kitchen chair when I got the phone call that my mammogram had come back highly suspicious. At the same time I was asking my doctor what "highly suspicious" meant, I was watching Kirtley as she held on and got ready to let go. Her face said, "Watch this mom. I might walk."
"It means you probably have breast cancer," my doctor said. Time stopped.
I didn't cry. I didn't do anything. I froze. After my doctor said I needed to find a breast surgeon, I hung up and stood watching Kirtley as she did, indeed, let go of the chair and take a step to the next chair.
The next two weeks were a blur, but I kicked in to my journalist training and found a surgeon who recommended an oncologist. My hope for the new lumpectomy procedure was shattered when it was discovered that there were roots on the tumor. So mastectomy it was, followed by 16 weeks of grueling chemotherapy.
When I was diagnosed, breast cancer was black and white. You either had it or you didn't, and there were few differences. Today, testing will show that very few breast cancers are the same, which provides doctors information on how to treat the cancer. The age of individualized medicine has arrived.
But my chemotherapy was the same most women received. There were basically four or five drugs given every three weeks for 16 or 20 weeks. Today, there are 20 some odd drugs used regularly that work in a number of ways, some of which mean a woman won't lose her hair. Women with metastatic disease are living longer and having a better quality of life.
There has also been attention paid to quality of life for young women who will live with the aftermath of the disease, no longer giving up their fertility.
Have all these additions and new information improved statistics for women being diagnosed? For some yes, for others, no. The ACS numbers for women being diagnosed show some 246,660 women will be diagnosed this year and 40,450 will die. When I look at these statistics I have to ask: Why?