The literature nerds among us (and you know who you are) might recognize that I am making a vague play on the 19th century memoir Two Years Before the Mast by Richard Henry Dana Jr., which was about the hard lot and miserable treatment suffered by the common sailor in the early 1800s. While Dana intended his book to be a sort of exposé, it was widely received as the gripping tale of a sea voyage.
I feel something like similar to that dichotomy in looking back on the last decade. In just two weeks, on St. Valentine’s Day 2014, I will mark the tenth anniversary of my mastectomy. (I recall that day in this post, and my friend Aliza talks about it from her point of view here.)
My initial diagnosis was “mostly DCIS (ductal carcinoma in situ) with some IDC (invasive ductal carcinoma)” at Stage IIb or IIIa. It was vague and I didn’t ask for more precision. I was stunned. I was unable to process and evaluate data and situations. I didn’t ask many questions. I took a lot of notes and I did what I was told.
Within a year I was diagnosed at Stage IV. I don’t know if they missed the metastasis at first or if it somehow developed during the chemo and radiation and hormonal treatment that took up most of that first year. It doesn’t really matter, I guess.
The predicted life expectancy after my Stage IV diagnosis was two or three years. I’m starting my eleventh year. Just as Two Years Before the Mast was both an exposé and an adventure story, this decade of survival has been both wonderful and awful.
The wonderful part is pretty obvious, and maybe the awful part is, too. I didn’t expect to live this long. I wasn’t yet fifty years old when I was diagnosed; if I’m still alive next year, I’ll turn sixty. I didn’t do anything special. I didn’t go on a special diet or take supplements or meditate more than usual or pray more than usual. (I admit that my life includes somewhat more time in prayer and meditation than most people, though.) I didn’t really change my lifestyle at all, except for the gradually increasing limitations imposed by the illness and the side effects of treatment.
I’m tired now. The last couple of years—especially the last year—have been tough. The bone mets has progressed more than it did in the several previous years. The pain increased and increased some more and then increased again. I’ve started taking narcotics, which was a very hard decision for me to make. I’ve had to take antidepressants and anti-anxiety drugs and sleeping pills. I am experiencing far greater fatigue than I ever have, even more than during chemo with AC-Taxol protocol at the very beginning.
I’m tired. I’m not tired of living – far from it! I love life and I love the physical, intellectual and emotional pleasures of life. But I’m tired. My body is fatigued and my spirit… my spirit feels like Bilbo Baggins: “… thin, sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread.”
How do I account for my ten years of survival with metastatic breast cancer? I don’t know. I’m a religious woman, so I just attribute it to those things that God knows and we don’t. I’m also an intellectual woman, so I attribute it some genetic or environmental factor that has yet to be identified. I’m also a philosophical woman, so I say that sometimes things just happen. I don’t know why I got breast cancer, and I don’t know why it hasn’t killed me yet.