Despite my concerns, I’m happy to be alive and I try to live life to the fullest. I have become a patient advocate for breast cancer survivors and find great satisfaction in helping others become better educated about their disease and more proactive in their care.
After being diagnosed with stage II invasive ductal carcinoma in my right breast in 2004, I did an Internet search to learn more about my treatment options so I could be prepared when I met with my oncologist to discuss my treatment plan. I was especially interested in therapies that would be effective but allow me to salvage my hair. Despite my efforts, however, in addition to a lumpectomy, my oncologist was recommending the standard course of therapy for my type of cancer, including four cycles of a high-dose combination of doxorubicin and cyclophosphamide, followed by four cycles of paclitaxel, plus 35 days of radiation therapy over 7 weeks.
With this regimen, I knew my hair didn’t have a chance. What I didn’t expect to see was all my toenails floating to the top of the water one night while I was taking a bath. Although I didn’t feel any pain, the sight of my toes without nails and my head without hair made me truly sad.
I know that the point of all this treatment was to make me well, but I couldn’t help but feel that one by one, I was losing parts of my life that made me who I am. The cumulative side effects from my treatment, including fatigue, nonstop vomiting, weight loss, and “chemobrain” were overwhelming. And because I was so sick and weak from all the chemotherapy, I couldn’t take adjuvant tamoxifen therapy.
Problems of Reconstructive Surgery
I have wondered if skipping tamoxifen may have contributed to a local breast cancer recurrence a year-and-a-half later, but I have friends who are ER-positive and have had distant metastatic recurrences. I’ll never know for sure if tamoxifen would have made a difference, but the ensuing physical changes I’ve experienced since my recurrence guarantees that my body and my life will never be the same.
The new cancerous mass was small and confined to my right breast. I decided to have a bilateral mastectomy to avoid the possibility that I might develop cancer in my left breast as well. It had only been 15 months since I ended treatment, and I believed my body was determined to have more breast cancer. The bilateral mastectomy sparing the left nipple made the most sense with my set of circumstances. I have no regrets about that decision.
Since I had had radiation therapy and subsequent skin damage, there were problems using implants for my breast reconstruction. After several failed reconstruction attempts including a lateral flap, I found a fantastic plastic surgeon who was able to do various things surgically and give me a beautiful aesthetic result. Nevertheless, the reconstructed breasts are hard to the touch and do not feel natural.
Women contemplating a contralateral prophylactic mastectomy need to be aware that no matter how skilled the plastic surgeon, reconstructed breasts are not the same as natural breasts. They also need to know the complications that can arise as a result of radiation-related skin damage and be given advice on which type of reconstruction surgery has the best chance of success. I’m disappointed because my oncology surgeon never told me of the potential complications of using implants to reconstruct my breasts, even though I had asked if the type of surgery I chose made a difference.
Living My Best Life
The cumulative effects from all the drugs and surgeries over the past 8 years have taken a toll. And a hip break due to osteoporosis, a late effect from my treatment, has added another scar to my already tattered body. However, I maintain a regular exercise routine and have worked hard to restore my strength. I am so happy that the chemobrain faded away, and I feel that my mind and memory are in top form again.
More than the physical effects of having breast cancer, I worry about the statistic showing that 30% of early-stage breast cancer survivors eventually develop distant recurrence and stage IV disease, especially because my best friend—who had chemotherapy for primary breast cancer at the same time as me—was in the 30% and died of metastatic breast cancer. I have many friends with metastatic breast cancer, and I am determined that they be helped.
While I am thrilled that I currently have no evidence of disease, I am concerned that those with metastatic breast cancer have sometimes been lost in the sea of pink survivors. I was prescribed tamoxifen after my cancer recurred 5 years ago (and have tolerated the drug), but I live with the knowledge that my cancer could eventually become metastatic.
Despite my concerns, I’m happy to be alive and I try to live life to the fullest. I have become a patient advocate for breast cancer survivors and find great satisfaction in helping others become better educated about their disease and more proactive in their care. I have been to two major Breast Cancer Symposiums and the San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium, among other professional meetings. I am delighted that the oncology community is interested in patient advocates’ insights, recognizing how educated patient advocates can be and how much we have to offer.
While I keep vigilant for any new signs of health problems, I never forget to take pleasure in the ordinariness of every day. ■
Susan Zager is the founder of Advocates for Breast Cancer and lives in Los Angeles, California.
Cancer.Net offers information written for patients on breast reconstruction and what to expect following a mastectomy. To obtain this information, you may wish to recommend your patients visit http://www.cancer.net/cancer-types/breast-cancer/treatment.
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