Seven years into a diagnosis of stage 4 breast cancer, one woman has also nurtured hope.
There’s a photo of me with my youngest child, 12 at the time, approximately two months into my treatment for HER2+ stage 4 breast cancer. We are standing in the basement hallway of a church where his Boy Scout troop was hosting its annual pancake breakfast. I’m smiling in my knit cap and he’s smiling too.
I remember that moment clearly because I wanted so many things: To know if my treatment was working, to know if this was my last pancake breakfast, to know that my family would be okay. I had more immediate questions too, like why did some friends and acquaintances seek me out and offer comfort while others pretended they didn’t see me? That breakfast was the first time since my diagnosis that I’d been in public with his Boy Scout troop and no one said anything. It was disconcerting and distressing.
But it was a long time ago.
In two months, I’ll reach the seven-year anniversary of my cancer diagnosis. As someone recently told me on Twitter, I’m crushing the statistics. It’s not hard to remember what it felt like in the beginning though, when there are no answers and all that lays in front of you is a vast unknown. Answers, when they do come, are little sprinkles of hope or splinters of further loss. Mine were well timed with the seasons – winter was all loss. I didn’t want to go to the cancer center at all because I heard more bad news with every appointment. Even today I remember the shock in the open waiting room area when I burst into tears talking on the phone to my husband, a visit where I learned I probably had cancer in at least two other places. There are some things you just don’t do in a waiting room.
By that first spring, when my treatment hadn’t changed and I had grown a bit more used to the routine of receiving drugs that caused all sorts of unpleasant side effects, I didn’t exactly have hope but I was able to see the world in front of me. I might not live long but maybe I’d make it to the average survival of three years. By summer, my oncologist unexpectedly pulled the radiologist and the surgeon in to discuss why I might want to consider a lumpectomy and breast radiation, therapies more typical in the early-stage setting.
I was still so new to the world of cancer that I didn’t understand exactly what this meant, but I did know my doctors were practically radiating hope. I grabbed onto that hope and have refused to let go.
I have sometimes described living with stage 4 cancer as walking a tightrope or figuring out to stay in the center of a balance board. Living with hope inside the brutal reality of this cancer also requires balance.
I’ve been enormously lucky with my treatment response, while at the same time I continue to get scans regularly. Side effects have had to be weighed against the successful treatments causing them. There hasn’t been a day in seven years when I haven’t carried the weight of progression and an early death; when I haven’t looked at the drugs that I might receive in the future and fought to accept that mere months in improved overall survival deserves my admiration.
I’ve watched enough people die from metastatic cancer to know that the odds aren’t in my favor. It’s a reality intertwined with the hope I’ve nurtured. Not hope for a normal lifetime, not hope that I will have the life I imagined. But the hope I find in meaningful moments – for expressions of love, for the nurse who is both kind and adept at maneuvering an IV into my veins, for the flight that will bring my oldest daughter home in a few days time.
Daily hope, where bad days can’t steal away tomorrow’s promises.
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