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.
Living beyond the statistics and finding a way to celebrate a “cancerversary” with metastatic breast cancer.
By my calculations, I’ve gone for treatment a total of 112 times in the past six years. I’ve had approximately 23 scans, give or take a few due to brain scans, I’ve had my heart checked at least 20 times, and blood draws somewhere around 30 times. Add to that oncologist appointments, primary care appointments, mental health appointments, a brief (but impactful) stint in physical therapy, as well as appointments I’ve forgotten, and it becomes very clear to me why I struggle with the idea of celebrating a “cancerversary” that falls during the period of making New Year’s resolutions.
Like birthdays, I’m counting up but there is a lot of the bittersweet when it comes to cancer milestones. I am thrilled to have lived a remarkable six years with metastatic breast cancer, but there’s not a lot I’ve forgotten about the first year following my diagnosis. It was a steep learning curve featuring fear, loss and gradual understanding along the way.
And yet, with six years in the rearview mirror, the road in front is still mostly the same for all of us. The number of people dying each year from metastatic breast cancer in the United States remains tragically high at over 40,000. The length of those lives at diagnosis remains mostly short. Just 27% of women with metastatic breast cancer and 22% of men are alive at five years from the date of their diagnosis. There’s been progress—too often in the form of drugs that are so rough on our bodies that some choose to forgo them for the short life extension they promise—but there’s been so much pain as well. It’s hard to celebrate being here when friends have died far too soon or are facing the end of their treatment options.
Yet, the hope of the cancerversary is real this year.
I look back at my six years of metastatic breast cancer and there’ve been two high school graduations with a third on the horizon, a college graduation, good times with good friends and trips to see the people I love. I’ve packed a lot into six years and felt it all, good and bad. Year seven, starting at the same time as enormous changes in our country including a new President, new vaccines for COVID-19, renewed hope, seems like the right time to take note of a full six years of life when what I expected at the start was so much less.
So, while I’m not fully celebrating, I am aware of all that I would have missed. I am spending this month in thanks for the people who’ve kept me here, from my friends to my oncologist to the researchers who’ve put their careers directly in my unplanned path. I am acknowledging the fear I felt that lingers and the love that encircles me even when we can’t give one another hugs. Life is short and it is often far shorter with cancer.
Year six may be too much like year seven, where months of doing so very little other than what was devoted to cancer sometimes made it feel endlessly empty, but somehow the future seems to be stretching out in front of me in this moment. Acknowledging a cancerversary in the midst of this particular new year seem like the proper expression of hope. Here’s to my year seven and to 2021—may it be good to us all.