I was diagnosed at age 24 with stage 2 breast cancer when my daughter was a year old. I had a mastectomy, six rounds of chemo and later did five years of anti-hormonal treatments to help prevent a recurrence. Eight years later in 2013, at age 32, after months of health issues, I ended up at the hospital where they drained a litre and a half of fluid from the lining of my lungs. I found out that day my breast cancer had spread to my bones and lungs. Breast cancer doesn’t always come back in the breast. If it comes back in other organs, it is called metastatic breast cancer and is stage 4 and considered terminal.
I started anti-hormonal treatments again and within two months they had quit working. My bone lesions became so widespread, I was hospitalized for hypercalcemia (a potentially fatal condition when there is too much calcium in the blood). I had a broken rib where the tumor had weakened it. Walking was difficult and almost impossible because the tumors in my lower back were causing so much pain and the tumors in my lungs were causing breathing issues. My status changed to a "palliative care" patient and the focus was on quality of life. I had radiation done on my lower spine, and I started a chemotherapy regimen where I had chemo once a week for 2 weeks, then a one-week break. I also started a bisphosphate medicine to help repair my bones. Four months later, a brain MRI showed it had also spread to my brain; there were three small tumors present.
In time the chemo started working and my condition improved. I could drive again and within six months, I was able to stop taking any pain medication. CT scans showed my tumors shrinking. When I was well enough to withstand the surgery, I had my ovaries removed as part of my treatment because my cancer is fed by estrogen and progesterone hormones. I stayed on the chemo for over two and a half years before it quit working. Around the same time, an MRI showed my brain tumors had doubled from three to six and I had two stereo-tactic brain radiation sessions over an hour and a half each to treat them. I was switched to a different medicine, a pill I take every day to further reduce any hormones that could encourage the cancer to grow. In 2016, after being off work over three years, I was able to go back to my full-time job. I was so thankful to be well enough to do that. In March of this year, another MRI showed my brain lesions have started slowly growing again and I will have to do another round of brain radiation soon. My lungs and bones are considered "stable".
When comparing early stage and advanced stage breast cancer, early stage can be thought of like a spring to the finish line, trying to surgically remove, radiate and treat with chemo quickly to get rid of the cancer before it spreads. Because there is no cure for metastatic breast cancer it is thought of as more of a marathon, a slow steady approach to maintain quality of life and try to keep the disease stable and doing as minimal damage as possible. I support the Shop4Charity Calendar Sweepstakes because they raise money for breast cancer charities across Canada. It’s important to me to see charitable dollars going to fund breast cancer research.
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