Despite being vigilant about adhering to my annual schedule of screening mammography, in 2002, I was diagnosed with stage III triple-negative breast cancer. The diagnosis scared me, and I wondered if I was going to die. Determined to do what I could to survive the cancer, I underwent aggressive therapy, including removal of my left breast and a cancerous sentinel lymph node, followed by chemotherapy and radiation therapy. The treatment was grueling and left me overweight, fatigued, bald, and depressed.
I was so unhappy with how I looked, I spent much of my time during treatment and recovery close to home, usually outside in my garden reading. Photos of beautiful gardens I saw in a magazine inspired me to redesign and landscape my flower garden. Putting my energies into this work gave me a badly needed goal and made me feel physically and emotionally stronger. The transformation I witnessed from my previously overgrown flower beds to a radiant garden space filled with a variety of beautiful flowers and plants was also empowering, life affirming, and a reflection of how I, too, was being transformed from a patient with cancer to a cancer survivor.
Coping With Incurable Cancer
Although my oncologist never talked about my long-term prognosis—the emphasis was always on the present—after 5 years passed with no cancer recurrence, I started to relax. After 10 years and no recurrence, cancer was planted in my distant memory, and my life had returned to normal. But in 2014, 12 years after my cancer diagnosis, I began having trouble breathing and experienced tightness in my chest. Walking up even small hills left me gasping for air, and I knew something was wrong, although I wasn’t thinking my symptoms could be from a return of the cancer.
My primary care physician thought the problem was with my heart and sent me to a cardiologist for an evaluation. A chest x-ray showed fluid in both of my lungs, as well as two suspicious masses. I immediately knew this was the breast cancer metastasis I had been fearing for over a decade, but I didn’t know the extent of the cancer spread until imaging tests found more malignant lesions in my sternum. I now had stage IV cancer, and I was devastated. I had never known anyone to survive such late-stage disease, and I considered this turn of events to be a death sentence, although how long I might live was unclear.
Being Given a Lifeline
When I met with my oncologist to discuss the next steps, she suggested I enroll in a clinical trial investigating a combination therapy that included the immunotherapy atezolizumab and paclitaxel chemotherapy. Within a few weeks of receiving the treatment, I began to feel stronger and my breathing improved. New imaging scans showed that the tumors in my lungs and sternum were shrinking.
“It is only the recent advances in cancer therapy, especially immunotherapy, that have enabled me to live so long with advanced cancer.”— Eva Joseph
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Six years later, I’m still on the combination therapy. The tumors in my lungs have nearly disappeared, and the tumors in my sternum remain small. There is no sign of metastatic breast cancer in any other part of my body, and I am optimistic that I will continue to live a productive life for many more years.
Getting Back Time
When I was diagnosed with stage IV breast cancer, I thought I probably had 18 months to live. It is only the recent advances in cancer therapy, especially immunotherapy, that have enabled me to live so long with advanced cancer. I want to thank my oncology team and all the scientists involved in these research discoveries for giving me back my life.
Although I continue to experience side effects from the therapy, including nausea and neuropathy in my left arm and hand, I’m grateful to be alive. The therapy has enabled me to mark some important life milestones, including seeing my daughter graduate from college, and I continue to take short trips throughout my home state of Oregon with my husband, so my life remains active and fulfilling.
Although I wish I had never been diagnosed with cancer, it has given me a life awareness that I otherwise wouldn’t have had. I appreciate the natural world more, and I spend as much time as I can outdoors, bird watching and stopping to smell the roses—both figuratively and literally—and reflecting on how good it is to be alive.
Ms. Joseph lives in West Linn, Oregon.
Editor’s Note: Columns in The Patient’s Corner are based solely on information The ASCO Post receives from patients and should be considered anecdotal.