“Breast cancer is not a death sentence”
In honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, I am proud to say that I have been “living” with cancer for 18 years. Also, as SEMPQIC has a priority focus on heaIth care disparities, as such SEMPQIC is a major stakeholder in reducing morbidity and mortality in black women.
I was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 2004 and, again, in 2012. Indeed, when we first hear those words, “you have cancer,” our immediate thought is that we are going to die soon. I remember when I first heard those words in 2004, I was left in a state of shock, my heart pounded in my chest, and I had to take deep slow breaths to keep from fainting. I was in a state of disbelief because I had had a mammogram within the past 12 months, and it was negative. How could I possibly have stage two breast cancer? I remember crying all the way home, worrying about how I would leave my kids and my family. Most often the dialogue around cancer focuses on dying, not living.
Fact: 99% of breast cancer, when found early, is curable.
After a lumpectomy, months of chemotherapy and radiation, I was ready to get back to my life. Those months were a blur of hospitalizations due to complications, visits to the hospital for chemo and radiation, loss of appetite, loss of hair, fatigue and not recognizing my own body. Also, I had many sleepless nights worrying about my future. After my treatment was completed, I was told that the cancer was no longer evident instead of cured, because the cancer had reached my lymph nodes. I was placed on an estrogen blocker, that prevents tumor growth by preventing the cancer cells from getting the hormones needed for them to grow. Also, I had to have regular blood work and a full-body CT scan and bone scan every 6 months. With this follow-up treatment plan, cancer was never far from my mind.
However, my outlook on life was to live life to the fullest each and every day, knowing that another day is not promised. Also, to appreciate all the good things in my life and to thank God for his continued blessings. Through all of this, I learned to accept and appreciate that the love and support of loving family and friends were crucial to my wellbeing and recovery.
I was taken off the estrogen blocker in 2011 because the medical wisdom at that time was that if the cancer did not reoccur within five years after being on the medication, you were considered “cured.” I felt a great sense of relief, took a deep breath, and began to relax – really relax – for the first time in years. So, you can imagine how I felt in 2012 when I learned, from a biopsy, that a small pimple was indeed a regrowth of my cancer! Again, I had never missed a mammogram, I never felt better, and there was no indication that this would happen, yet again.
Fact: It is extremely important that you get your mammogram annually and examine your breasts regularly. Cancer can grow very fast even within the 12 months between mammograms.
This time, surgery was not an option, so IV chemotherapy, very extensive and painful radiation, as well as long-term oral chemotherapy medications, were the treatments of choice. This second time around, I was actually more relaxed, because I knew what to expect with the treatments., I had no complications and said to myself, “If I got through this once, I could do it again!” I continued my prayers of gratitude and the support of friends and family sustained me throughout.
Now, here we are in 2021. I have been on a cancer treatment medication, specifically designed for post-menopausal women with cancer cells that are sensitive to hormones, coupled with another anticancer drug, for more than five years. I have monthly blood work to make sure my immune system stays strong, a full-body CT scan and bone scan every six months, and a yearly mammogram, or more frequently, if needed. I feel great most days and enjoy all the pleasures of life as before, including time with family, traveling, a new grandson born during these years, golf, exercise, working part-time, and an overall high quality of life.
I am so very grateful for the excellent medical care that I have received from many physicians, including oncologists and other specialists, and the entire teams of professionals and other support staff.
I am deeply moved by the many other cancer warriors, as well as those who have passed away, that I have met along this journey. I am especially thankful for friends like Lenora Hayes, Judith Jackson, and Cheryl Fallon who also had cancer and were supportive and helpful mentors to me and have earned their wings. I have also lost two of my siblings to cancer, a sister in 2017 and a brother in 2019.
I have been living with cancer now for 18 years. While there have been many ups and downs, there are more ups than downs. Thanks to technology and pharmaceutical advances, cancer is now becoming like a chronic disease that can be managed, treated, and supported as any other chronic disease.
However, the drugs needed for sustaining life are extremely expensive. For example, the cost of my cancer medications is over $100,000 each year, but thanks to my insurance and Medicare, my out-of-pocket cost each year is about $15,000, which is still exorbitant and unaffordable for many seniors and others. I urge this Congress to negotiate with Big Pharma and health plans to reduce the high cost of life-sustaining drugs and assure that these essential medications are available and affordable for all American citizens.
Fact: African American women are more often diagnosed with late-stage breast cancer and breast cancer deaths are 40% higher than in white women.