Cate’s cancer story

My cancer story truly began in 1989, the year my sister Carol died from metastatic breast cancer at the age of 39. The combination of her age and metastasis (when cancer moves to another part of the body) should have been a BIG wake-up call for me. But instead of realizing the possibility that I, too, could get breast cancer, I chose the much less threatening, more comforting response: Denial and Magical Thinking. Denial because I remember thinking that cancer wouldn’t strike twice among siblings in the same family. I felt I had dodged the bullet that Carol took for me and my two surviving sisters. Magical Thinking because I was ten years younger than Carol, and like many people in their 20s, I was invincible. I was healthy. I would eliminate carcinogens, consume less meat and dairy, eat more organic vegetables.

About a decade later, I discovered the downside of denial and the limits of magical thinking.

Breast cancer diagnosis one

In the spring of 2000 and at the same age that my sister was when she died, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Another bullet to my family. I had a modified radical mastectomy, followed by chemotherapy. I received mixed opinions on radiation, so I opted against it. Because my cancer was hormone-receptor-positive, I could take Tamoxifen. With surgery, chemo, and adjuvant drug therapy, radiation seemed like overkill. Tamoxifen was prescribed for five years, and then I was moved to Arimidex, but I stopped that treatment, mainly because of its side-effects. yet honestly, magical thinking was part of the decision. I was done with breast cancer and I vowed that breast cancer would be done with me.

Chemo can turn you into a baldy, but only temporarily Chemo can turn you into a baldy, but only temporarily Oncologist artwork for plotting radiation Oncologist artwork for plotting radiation

Breast cancer diagnosis two

Seven years later, in the summer of 2007, I learned that breast cancer, in fact, was not done with me when I found a small lump in my mastectomy incision. Doctors concluded that some microscopic cells had remained after the mastectomy and chemo but were kept in check by the Tamoxifen. That radiation option I declined in 2000 was now a must-do, so I did. Radiate me now—radiate me later, the way I looked at it, things could have gone either way. Turns out, there is a difference between now and later.

The radiation side story

In 2009, I experienced another setback, although one that was something of my own making. The radiation caused encapsulation (surrounding scar tissue) of my implant, plus I didn’t like the idea of a radiated object staying inside me. I consulted a reputable plastic surgeon who said surgery on radiated tissue could be a challenge. She said she wouldn’t even consider it until at least a year had passed; I waited longer. She replaced the implant and felt the procedure went well and that my skin was fine, which it was, for several weeks, until the morning I awoke with a red stain on my white t-shirt. The surgical wound had split open, otherwise known as dehiscence. I felt no pain. My insides weren’t poking out. My boyfriend at the time drove me to the ER as I tried to hold the incision together, expecting to be pumped full of antibiotics and stitched back together again.

Antibiotics, yes; stitching, no. I was told the incision would need to heal on its own, which it started doing, until I slipped on some ice, and while I caught myself, that action caused another split, albeit a smaller one. I was to face a fresh new hell—healing aided by a wound vac, a device I had to wear around the clock for a few weeks.

When I finally was able to have reconstructive surgery—heavy emphasis on construction—it required fresh new tissue, which was donated by the latissimus dorsi muscle in my right back. After recovery, relief and happiness returned once again.

Me and my wound vac Me and my wound vac Photo by Kay Beaton, shortly after my mbc diagnosis Photo by Kay Beaton, shortly after my mbc diagnosis

Breast cancer diagnosis 3

That round of happiness and relief lasted until 2016, when I developed a persistent cough, leading to the discovery of fluid in my right lung, which was drained and biopsied, revealing cancer cells. A subsequent scan revealed a bit of cancer in my right lung and a bit in my bones, limited to a small patch in my right pelvis and lower spine. It was not lung cancer or bone cancer but breast cancer cells that had moved into those areas, selfish and land-grabbing little demons that they are.

As ominous as all this sounds, my situation is not dire. When I learned about the metastasis, I asked the oncologist if I should go home and get my affairs in order. He all but rolled his eyes and assured me I had many more years ahead of me. He said I am in the category of cancer as a chronic illness, and to keep contributing to my 401(k).

20 years a breast cancer survivor

A cancer diagnosis is fear-inducing, and the idea of cancer recurrence is terrifying. It’s not something anyone wants to think about, so my advice is: Don’t. Certainly don’t obsess or worry, yet consider my story a cautionary tale. If signs pop-up or symptoms don’t go away, call the doctor. Early detection makes a huge difference. For those of you with cancer of any kind, remain vigilant after treatment.

Because of my experience, my mission with Stage 4 Living is to educate people about protecting their health, not falling prey to magical thinking, and most importantly, living life to the fullest.

 

Utah in 2007, contemplating the radiation awaiting me Utah in 2007, contemplating the radiation awaiting me