Iglanced at the sonogram technician's face and knew something was wrong. When I'd noticed that one side of my breast felt very firm and swollen and looked a little dimpled, I'd assumed it was just a clogged milk duct, which I'd dealt with years before. But when I peeked at the screen beside the tech, who was holding the wand under my armpit, it was lit up like a Christmas tree.
Next, my doctor ordered an MRI and biopsy, and when she said the words — "It's breast cancer" — all I could think about was how my upcoming family vacation had just been derailed. I have four kids, and my third was about to graduate from high school. It was already going to be an emotional summer sending her off to college. I didn't have time for cancer.
At first I thought, I'll do the treatments and I'll be fine. But I learned I had metastatic breast cancer, and that was different. It had spread — to my spine, rib cage, pelvis, hip, and clavicle — and could not be cured. I went into a state of shock, grief, and anger and kept asking, "Why?" I was 46 and had always had regular mammograms, but the type of tumor and dense breast tissue I have makes this cancer hard to spot.
Since my diagnosis three years ago, I've been aiming to help people understand that I've been pretty successful at treating this disease, but I don't get to be part of the "survivors' club." When people tell me, "You're going to beat this!" I know they mean well, but it makes me feel like a failure. On the flip side, when people take time to understand my diagnosis and ask how they might help me, great things can happen.
Metastatic cancer has a way of inspiring me to think big about how I want to live the rest of my days, and there can be a real upside to that. Cancer isn't a gift, but there are things about it that have helped me live more authentically. For instance, my husband and I went on an Alaskan cruise to celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary a year after I was diagnosed. One night, we realized we probably wouldn't have gone on the trip if I hadn't had cancer. Now I truly value the time I have.
While my breast cancer isn't curable, treatment has come a long way. I was diagnosed right after a few new targeted therapies had come out. These drugs pinpoint and kill cancer cells but leave healthy cells alone, which means they have fewer side effects than radiation and chemotherapy. For patients like me, the goal is for our cancer to be chronic, not terminal. I'm one of those patients who don't actually look sick. Some days I have muscle and joint pain and have to take it easy; other days I can spend time with my kids, play with my dog, and garden.
I want to travel more and manage this disease so I can meet my grandkids someday. And I have even bigger dreams for my daughters. I hope they never go through breast cancer, and I'm encouraged that the advances in medicine might mean this dream could come true.
This story originally appeared in the July/August 2018 issue of Landcruisers.