Sometimes the Reality of Cancer Gets Lost in Translation

When a friend with metastatic breast cancer said that her cancer responded to treatment and she was excited to stop taking daily pills, I thought that something must have been miscommunicated to her.

A young woman I know was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer late last year. They initially thought it was localized, and the day she was supposed to start chemotherapy she got a phone call that it had been cancelled because a scan had revealed tumors on her liver. Needless to say, everyone was devastated.

She started oral chemotherapy to treat the liver metastases and went for a scan in May to see how things were going. She was so excited to share that her cancer had been fully responsive and that the tumors had almost completely disappeared. She went on to say that she was going to be very relieved to be able to stop taking the pills.

"Uh oh,” I thought.

I’m not sure how the message about her prognosis got lost in translation. Once you are diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer there is no “cure,” no magic bullet that will put you back on your former life path. There is a list of medications that oncologists use to treat patients, starting from the top and working their way down, and their experience has taught them that eventually cancer will find a work-around and they will have to move to the next one and the next one and so on.

What these medications offer to metastatic breast cancer patients is the gift of time — time to watch children grow up, time to share milestones and celebrations, time to hear the news that a cure has been found. But they also come with a host of side effects that must be managed, fatigue that is never ending and a daily reminder when the pill goes past your lips that your body has betrayed you.

And I think that last one is the one she was most looking forward to moving past.

When my daughter was going through chemotherapy, there were shining moments when she would feel better —not good, but better. And then treatment day would come, and she would be back into the misery again. It was almost cruel, those feeling better days, knowing they would be replaced by such awfulness, but at least we still had the dream that one day it would be over, that she would be able to leave that part of her cancer experience behind.

For us, that dream came true.

I wonder sometimes how it would feel for her if we hadn’t been so lucky. How would she feel to have so many of the good days that metastatic breast cancer treatments sometimes provide, all the while not knowing if the next scan would show that the pills had stopped working and that she would be put onto a new drug that perhaps her body wouldn’t tolerate so well. I try to put myself into that mindset as her mother and I simply can’t get there. It’s unimaginable to me, and yet I know it is the reality for so many mothers of young women out there who live with metastatic disease.

I wish I could have jumped with abandon onto the joy train with this young woman when her scan came back with such positive results, even if it was only for a short time. I was thrilled that the outcome had been exactly what everyone hoped for, but at the same time I knew that what she thought it meant was going to be blown out of the water when she sat in her oncologist’s office and was told she’d be on the pills forever.

One of the things I miss the most about my life before my daughter had breast cancer is blissful ignorance of what the diagnosis actually can mean. Now I know what can and cannot be once the words “it’s cancer” are said aloud and it’s just, using my daughter’s favorite description, a lot.

Time to go send her an “I love you” message. Because I can. Hugs to everyone out there who can’t.

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