Pink-to-ber n A portmanteau coinage used by many people who live with breast cancer to refer to October, the Breast Cancer Awareness Month, which is heavily dominated by marketing in the color pink and cute tags like “Save the tatas”. (See Komen, etc.)
During the month of October 2013, I am running guest posts from people with metastatic breast cancer (MBC) or who are closely involved with someone who has MBC. This was the idea of the wonderful Jody Schoger, and I think some other breast cancer bloggers are participating, too.
Today’s post is a slightly modified version of a post I wrote at the beginning of this year. If you want to know a little more about me, please take click the link. If you want to make me smile (she solicited shamelessly) please follow this blog and like my Facebook page.
I live in Israel. According to the Israeli Ministry of Health, about one in eight women in this country will be diagnosed with breast cancer during their lives. Medical sources agree that although only about 6% of breast cancer is metastatic at first diagnosis, close to thirty percent of all breast cancers, including those detected early, will metastasize.
My breast cancer was self-detected and them confirmed on my first ever mammography. There was already lymph node involvement and the question of distant mets was raised and dismissed. The primary tumor was about as long as my thumb. All the factors together put the staging at IIB or IIIA. Within a year, metastasis was diagnosed – in my case, to the spine.
Practically speaking, this means that I will never be healthy again. While people can live for several years with bone mets (the most common site of breast cancer metastasis), life will never be the same. Life is never the same for anyone who has lived through a “cancer event”, but for those of us with metastatic cancer it means living with increasingly severe pain and the side effects of pain relieving drugs, with increasing fatigue and the attendant frustration. It means living from treatment to treatment, and a narrowing of one’s sphere of activity and social circle. It means coming to terms with one’s mortality in a very immediate way, while helping loved ones do the same.
These are some of the commonalities among people living with metastatic cancer. But we are still individuals right up to the end. We each have our own personality, coping techniques, level of insight, hobbies, loves, fears. We still have preferences for how to live our remaining time. Some of us strive for continuous positive thinking, some become social or politically active. Some of us reach out to others, and some prefer to be alone. Some are indescribably sad; others seethe with rage. Many of us are all of these things at different times.
I wrote the original version of this post on an iPad while resting in bed. The weather was nice and I wanted to go outside to try to repair some of the ravages that recent storms visited on my garden, but I was exhausted after ten minutes. Some days I don’t even get dressed because I know I’ll be spending most of the day in bed, but on other days I call a friend who takes me on short walks in the neighborhood. Metastatic cancer is helping me learn to be more flexible and to adjust my expectations.
I can’t say I am exactly the same woman I was before the cancer, but I don’t think I’ve changed all that much in some ways. I still prefer to avoid confrontation, and I still use humor as my primary defense mechanism. I still love poetry and novels and movies about people and feelings. I am still fascinated by the “people side” of history, am still more of a process person than a goal-oriented one, and I am still competitive. (Lexulous, anyone?)
While I was in bed writing this post back in January, the man who helped me by cleaning my house accidentally bumped my bed and the jarring caused me pain. “I hate being like this,” I found myself yelling and then I felt ashamed of myself for “breaking down” in front of him.
He looked at me with kindness and a little smile. “I know,” he said in a broken combination of Hebrew and English. (He is Hungarian and speaks neither language easily.) “For you, this is very difficult. You are a very strong person,” he made a fist. Then he held his arms out in front of him, palms up, and swept them wide open. “And you love life, living,” he said. “It is very hard for you.”
Yes and yes.
Addendum, October 2013. When I wrote this post, I was still refusing narcotic pain relief. Ten months later, I am taking it–not as often as my doctor would like, but more often than I want to. Almost daily now, in fact, even though I’m pretty good at dealing with pain due to many injuries in childhood and multiple orthopedic surgeries as an adult.
In the intervening months I’ve had to stop working in my primary profession. I’m grateful that I have a second skill that allows me to work at home, as I’m able. My sweet Hungarian helper had to quit because of back trouble, but we’re still in touch. I have a wonderful new helper now.
I’m going through a hard patch right now, physically and emotionally, due to cancer and other things. I’m very grateful that I have a profound knowledge that the only constant in life is change.