Cancer Has Made Me the Person I Am

As a 17-year survivor of metastatic breast cancer, nothing frightens me, not even the future.

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Cancer survivors just get it: We live in the moment. What else is there?
— Debbie Davis

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My breast cancer diagnosis in 1993, at age 34, came at the happiest moment in my life. I had gotten married just 10 months earlier and was looking forward to the future and children. But instead of celebrating my first wedding anniversary with my husband over a romantic dinner, we were at a cancer center, where I received the first of what would be 3 brutal months of infusions of the chemotherapy regimen of cyclophosphamide, doxorubicin, and fluorouracil and 5 weeks of daily radiation therapy. There would be many more highs and lows over the next 24 years.

The discovery of my cancer, as I guess is true for many survivors, came as a complete surprise. I was talking on the phone with a friend when I reached under my left armpit and felt a small lump. Somehow, I instinctively knew it could be a problem. My gynecologist suggested that I have a mammogram, and a week later I had surgery to remove a cancerous tumor in my left breast and three malignant lymph nodes. The cancer was estrogen receptor– and progesterone receptor–positive breast cancer. Twenty-four years ago, there wasn’t a test to screen for overexpression of the HER2 gene protein, but in 2000, when the cancer metastasized to my skull, it was determined that I did, in fact, have HER2-positive breast cancer.

Having a Life Well Lived

Despite the aggressive treatment for my breast cancer, the benefit I received was short-lived. In 1996, the cancer recurred, requiring a full mastectomy of my left breast but no other treatment. Four years later, the cancer metastasized to my skull and has since spread to my chest wall, liver, and bones. I’ve been fortunate that myriad treatment strategies, including hormonal therapies; chemoembolization; radioembolization; proton therapy; and newer targeted drugs such as neratinib, an anti-HER2 tyrosine kinase inhibitor, have kept my cancer manageable. I admit, though, every time a new tumor appears, it is a source of anxiety and wonder how much longer I will be able to control this disease.

Still, cancer has not robbed me of the life I envisioned for myself. To my great surprise, a year after I completed therapy for my primary cancer, I became pregnant with my son, Bryce. The joy of raising him and the experience of having years of good health in between cancer recurrence and metastases make me grateful for my life.

My professional career has centered on making a difference in the lives of others, and since my diagnosis, I’ve devoted my time to helping other survivors cope with their cancer. As corny as it sounds, the truth is that I am who I am because of my breast cancer. Once too shy to speak in front of people, now I welcome the opportunity to talk with other cancer survivors, both in large groups and individually, about the impact of the disease on their lives. Knowing I have survived cancer for so many years has made me confident that I can survive anything, and I’m a stronger person because of my experience.

I was always envious of friends who were expert in gardening or playing an instrument. I’ve discovered that I’m good at surviving cancer, and as a result, I live my life more fully and deliberately than perhaps others do, not wasting a minute in the day.

Living in the Moment

I’ve done well over these 24 years for two reasons: I’m proactive in my health care, even bringing the latest clinical trial information to meetings with my oncologist, and I have a wonderful oncology care team that closely monitors my health. The rapport I have with my oncologist is so strong I can spot even minor changes in his attitude when he walks into the exam room, signaling whether the news is going to be good or not so good.

But I’m not worried about the future. I recognize the precariousness of my health, but I refuse to let it limit or define my life.

Cancer survivors just get it: We live in the moment. What else is there? ■

Ms. Davis works for the Starkloff Disability Institute and lives in St. Louis, Missouri.