Martha lives in Illinois and was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer in January 2015. She has a husband and three children, ranging in age from 12 to 18, a dog and a lizard.
A prolonged and doctor-sanctioned respite from scans gave one woman time to re-evaluate her life with metastatic breast cancer.
I had CT scans a week ago. There aren't a lot of reliable aspects of living with metastatic cancer, but scans fit right in there beside regularly scheduled treatments. There was a long period of time when I had those scans every three months, followed by every four. But this last scan had five and a half months between it and the previous one.
That’s a long time. It's nearly half a year when I didn't stress about what new scans might show. Would there be progression? Would they find some other problem? What kind of treatment would come next? Would I respond well, or would it be a series of worsening choices?
When someone tells you that they're experiencing scanxiety, these are the types of questions that overwhelm their thoughts. I am no stranger to scanxiety. I have developed many ways to try to minimize it in my life, such as exercise, meditation, mindfulness and asking for minimal time between scans and results. But none of my efforts have had the same effect as my oncologist widening the time between scans to this gift of over five months.
I've been responding well to my treatment and I know I am lucky with this. In addition to the longer stretch between scans, there was also slightly more than a week between scans and getting my results. Normally, that period of time has been one weekend, a tortuous weekend of worry.
This time, and I hope to experience this again, I put the tests on my calendar and forgot about them until less than a week before. When you've been living from scan-to-scan, which I still am, for nearly five years, almost half a year with not a single cancer progression test is a wonderful thing.
My life wasn’t “normal” during these five and a half months. I still had IV treatment every three weeks; my heart checked because of cardiotoxicity from one of my cancer drugs; and my peripheral neuropathy, fatigue and feelings about all of this didn't lessen or go away. However, it was a much-needed break from the high-anxiety-provoking sequence of scan-treat-repeat (Thanks to the Metastatic Breast Cancer Network for teaching me this expression).
This scan sabbatical made me think about how my life with metastatic cancer has changed. I've lost quite a lot of friends to cancer and I know women who've been stable for many years who suddenly show progression. Yet, I've learned to live, reluctantly but somewhat successfully, with the uncertainty of it all. I think these past five and a half months have given me an unexpected reminder that I am still alive, and I have many things I want to do and many people I love.
Uncertainty is a difficult friend. It demands you balance hope against fear, to know what is likely to happen and to see another path open up before you. This struggle and insistence on finding life when you are walking toward death is not easy or simple. It is hard and it is a life that I don't want anyone else to live.
I may be living scan-to-scan, and those scans may soon come closer together, but for today my mind and my heart are focused on life not on my own progression.
For now, I am lucky. For now, I can say out loud as I walk into the hospital, “Not today, cancer!” and believe it.