Are Cancer Outcomes Just a Roll of the Dice?

No matter how grateful I feel this holiday season, I fear that my daughter’s no evidence of disease status was just a roll of the dice — and another roll can take us back to the world of cancer.

In the last two weeks, two mothers have reached out to me because their “too-young” daughters have been diagnosed with breast cancer. They are both facing the same treatment plan as my girl did and I’m struggling — a lot. Because I know what their lives will look like in the near future, and it’s Christmas.

My daughter went through treatment from March 2019 to July 2020, but the worst of it, the chemotherapy, ended in October of 2019.Although the side effects carried into the holiday season, I wasn’t watching her crawled up in misery on the couch while the rest of her family tried to celebrate around her.

We knew from pathology on the surgery to remove the affected lymph nodes done in November that the cancer had been fully responsive to the treatment, and she was dancing with NED (no evidence of disease).She still had radiation coming after the holiday, but the shadow of eyebrows and eyelashes and hair was already making an appearance as we sat together opening gifts on Christmas morning.

However, I could see that she was struggling emotionally. We were all trying to be normal when her life was so far from that and she was just coming to terms with exactly how impactful her cancer diagnosis would continue to be. I would watch her withdraw into herself, knowing that she was determined to not let her experience color what is for our family the most special time of the year. Out of respect, no one poked the wound, understanding that if she needed to open that door she would do it with me at a safe time.

Now, her Christmas 2022 life has so much future in it. She has moved closer to the rest of the family, she’s engaged to a wonderful young man who loves her with all he has, her hair is back to the length and texture it was when she chose to shave her head. If you saw her sitting at a doctor’s office you would never know she was going in to have a recheck to make sure no lumps can be found.She has resigned herself to the fact that cancer will inform the rest of her life and while there is still anxiety even that is accepted as a part of who she is now.

That’s what I want to share with the two mothers who reached out to me: that everything will be OK.That two or three Christmases from now, they’ll remember how nightmarish this time was, but with the distance they will be able to envision a future around the tree on Christmas morning. And the hardest thing to me to realize is that I can’t, because each person’s cancer experience is like a snowflake and I know to the depths of my soul that Adrienne’s current status has just as much to do with luck as it does with science. Now as with always, we are outliers.

Cancer is isolating in so many ways. I try to find people to relate to who have been where I have, but it would have to be almost an exact match for my emotions to not bounce around the universe like a ping pong ball. I have “met” other mothers whose daughters have had cancer, and although we shared a path when it came to the staggering distress of treatment, I haven’t met any whose survivorship experience has been like mine, where there is no recurrence, or it wasn’t a de novo metastatic breast cancer diagnosis.

I know we are not supposed to compare, but how can I help it when another mother is screaming so loudly in her head that it keeps her up at night because her child’s concerns were brushed off and the chance to catch the cancer while it was only in the breast was lost? Or a mother who would do anything to be able to leave her life behind so go support her child as I could because there are too many demands on her to allow her to do so?

I will be surrounded by all that I love this holiday season, with no visible shoes waiting to drop. But I will be thinking about those two other mothers as I watch my grandchildren squeal with glee, as I watch my children laugh at their matching pajamas, and most of all as I look over at my girl and fix the joy I see in her face in my memory.

Because no matter how grateful, no matter how joyful I am in this moment I can’t walk away from the fact that it was a roll of the dice that got us here, and another roll of the dice can take us back.

Merry Christmas, to all except cancer. You can take a hike.

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