I'm just going to come right out and say it: I am beating the odds already. There are all kinds of statistics out there for the survival rates of patients with Stage 4 breast cancer. Most of them are pretty grim.
After all, there is no Stage 5.
And of course I can't remember where I saw it, but I've read a few times that the median survival time once metastases are detected is twenty-six months. That's not that many months. Ask any mother.
Only about one in five people with Stage 4 breast cancer live to see their five-year cancerversary. Go ahead and re-read that sentence. I'll wait for you.
Of course, there are a million factors that determine how any one person will fare -- extent of metastases, responsiveness to treatment, overall health other than cancer, sheer dumb luck, to name a few. So it's nearly impossible to predict accurately how long someone will live once diagnosed with cancer, and my doctors have never given me a timeframe, other to say they can treat this for years.
Then again, I've never had the heart to ask, "How many years?"
Deep breath. As of about a week ago, it has been twenty-six months since I was first diagnosed. Twenty-six months that I've been living with breast cancer. Twenty-six months since that August afternoon in Phoenix when my blood ran cold and my mouth went dry and I knew the lump was too large to be good news but I researched the statistics for survival anyway because that's what we are led to believe: everyone survives breast cancer. It's PINK, for God's sake.
I plan to continue beating the odds, to the extent I have any control over it, which, quite honestly, I don't.
This is when I have to remind myself of something my father-in-law often said after he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer: Statistics don't mean anything to the individual patient. Every body is unique. Every story is different.
Still, it is hard not to take note when you pass certain milestones, especially after you've seen so many friends die. On the other hand, I've also seen many friends live. I know a number of women who are living full lives with Stage 4 cancer five or ten years out from their initial mets diagnosis. "What's your secret?" I want to ask each of them, as if there were a single right answer, as if I could take any one of the suggestions that has been proffered to me (avoid all sugar, don't use plastic, don't eat anything processed, clear your energy fields, tie up emotional loose ends, drink a juice from a guy I know in Mexico, visit this guy I've heard about in Brazil, drink more red wine, avoid all alcohol) and -- poof! -- I'd get to live another dozen years, and then a dozen after that if I'm really lucky. It would be nice if it were that simple, wouldn't it?
During the Avon Walk I did last month, I met a woman who was diagnosed Stage 4 nearly eighteen years ago, and continues to stun her doctors with how well she's doing today. She's an outlier; these cases aren't typical. But I think every one of us facing this disease wants to be that outlier, the one who's walking 39.3 miles over a weekend twenty years removed from when the disease first struck.
After all, Stage 4 breast cancer wasn't supposed to happen to us, either. For those of us as young as I am, we are already statistical anomalies, so why not aim for winning the lottery, too? It could happen.
As Breast Cancer Awareness month comes to a close, please think about the fact that, currently, only about five percent of research dollars are spent studying metastases, even though mets are responsible for nearly every death from breast cancer. Maybe if we focused our efforts a little more, more than one in five of us would make it past the five-year mark. Maybe more of us could start to live with this disease long-term. Maybe more of us could watch our children grow up.
As the month comes to a close, I urge all of you to write your Representatives and Senators to maintain science research funding levels, specifically the Department of Defense's Breast Cancer Research Program and the National Cancer Institute. If you've never written Congress before, here's what I wrote to my own Congresswoman (feel free to use the parts of it that make sense for your own letter):
Dear Rep. Sinema,
I was just 32 years old when I was diagnosed with Stage 4 breast cancer. My son was an infant, and I was nursing when a pesky lump wouldn't go away. By the time my doctors took me seriously, it had spread to my lungs, spleen, and lymphatic system.
Today, I still receive chemotherapy every three weeks, and the cancer is stable. I have been in treatment for more than two years now. I have lost my breasts, my fertility, my hair (twice), and a number of friends to this disease.
I am one of the lucky ones because I am still here.
As breast cancer awareness month comes to a close, I hope that we can begin to move beyond awareness toward better education about the realities of breast cancer and, one day, a cure.
As Congress -- I hope -- moves toward a consensus on a budget and long-term funding for our government, I urge you to press for continued funding of what we really need in this breast cancer fight: more research. Please vote to maintain consistent funding levels for the Department of Defense's Breast Cancer Research Program as well as the National Cancer Institute.
Forty thousand people lose their lives to breast cancer every year in this country. Those of us living with this disease live our lives in three-month increments as we wait for results from scans that tell us whether our current treatment is working or that we've run out of options. We need more options, and quickly.
My little boy is depending on it.
In what seems like a previous lifetime, I was a congressional lobbyist in Washington. I might as well draw on that knowledge for something, right?
An earlier version of this post appeared on my blog, www.boobyandthebeast.com.