Betting Against the Odds
The 5-year survival rate associated with my incurable breast cancer is just 23%. I believe I’ll make it.
Because my cancer is incurable, it is critically important to me to know exactly how the cancer is reacting to treatment, so having to wait several weeks to get my latest test results is very difficult.
—Sharon K. Barger
I knew the two tumors in my left breast were cancerous even before I got the pathology results back on my biopsy. I could clearly see the tumors on the digital mammogram my doctor ordered, and when the radiologist pointed out that they had spikes radiating from the edges and that he was scheduling a biopsy and an appointment with a surgical oncologist, I was pretty sure the news wasn’t going to be good. So I wasn’t surprised when the doctor called to tell me that I did, in fact, have cancer and that it was invasive ductal carcinoma.
I had been preparing myself for the call and decided that I would undergo every treatment that he recommended, including a mastectomy with reconstructive breast surgery. If all went well, I would be back to normal in a year or two. What I wasn’t expecting was the news that the cancer had metastasized to my bones, including my spinal column, and that there were suspicious spots on my lungs. Further tests have confirmed seven malignant lymph nodes near my heart and lungs as well as several cancerous nodules in my lungs. I have stage IV breast cancer, and there is no cure.
When the doctor told my husband, sister, and me that I wouldn’t need a mastectomy or chemotherapy because I wouldn’t benefit from those therapies, my husband and sister were relieved almost to the point of being excited because what they heard was I didn’t have to have disfiguring treatment. All I heard was that I have incurable cancer, and it has taken a while for the full impact of the diagnosis to sink in.
Coping with Incurable Cancer
My doctor has reassured me that my cancer is treatable, and since my diagnosis last April, I’ve been taking tamoxifen daily and getting monthly injections of denosumab (Xgeva) to preserve my bones. In August, a PET scan showed that the tumors in my breast have shrunk by 25% and that the tumors in my bones and lungs are no longer active. My oncologist tells me that when tamoxifen stops working, there are at least 25 other chemotherapies and combinations of drugs he can prescribe.
Because my cancer is incurable, it is critically important to me to know exactly how the cancer is reacting to treatment, so having to wait several weeks until my next medical appointment to get my latest test results is very difficult. I would prefer that my physicians inform me of my test results as soon as they have that information and not make me wait. Not knowing what is going on with my breast cancer is the hardest part of coping with this disease.
I’ve accepted the fact that I have a chronic cancer that is not curable but that is treatable. There are times, however, when I struggle with my prognosis. I’ve seen the long-term survival rate for my breast cancer and it is pretty grim. According to the American Cancer Society, there’s just a 15% chance that I will survive 5 years. I’ve chosen to believe that I’ll be among those lucky 15%.
Recently, I read on Cancer.net that the 5-year survival rate for stage IV breast cancer has jumped to 23%. I was so happy when I saw that statistic I cried. Others may think a 23% chance doesn’t sound that good, but it’s a lot better than 15%.
Quality of Time
I have three children, ages 22, 20, and 17, and I desperately want to see my youngest son graduate high school and college and my other children start their careers and families. I’ll do whatever it takes to accomplish that goal.
I have tremendous faith and believe that advances in treatment will increase my long-term survival. But if I reach the point when active treatment fails to stop progression of my cancer and continuing therapy interferes with my quality of life, I’ll stop. More than anything else, what is important to me is quality of time with my family, not quantity of time. If I reach that point, I’ll make that wish known to my medical team. ■
Sharon K. Barger is a business specialist for a global chemical company and lives in Kingsport, Tennessee.