I was recently invited to write a short essay for the magazine Living Well. What follows is are the first and last paragraphs of that article. Please click here to read the rest of the article on the magazine's website. I am grateful to two friends, S. and D., who were my creative editors for the piece.
My hair is always the first part of my body to know that I have cancer. With each diagnosis, I made arrangements for someone to cut it and give it a cute albeit temporary style before the chemotherapy forced it out of its follicles. The first time I was diagnosed with breast cancer, my sisters’ friend gave me a pixie cut in the kitchen. The second time, I gave my young daughters the scissors and told them to have fun. After each cut, the hair follicles ached as they were bent in new ways, springing up with foreign lightness. It is this feeling on my scalp that affirms that I am not dreaming, that the course cannot be altered, that the reality of cancer is upon me.
I was diagnosed with stage III inflammatory breast cancer (IBC) four days before my thirtieth birthday. I had felt a firmness in my left breast for 18 months, but since I was breastfeeding my second daughter at the time, various medical professionals told me it was a clogged duct. Or something unknown, but certainly not breast cancer. When the lump persisted after I finished breastfeeding, I found a new surgeon who was willing to perform a biopsy. While he was retrieving the biopsy sample and I was still on the procedure table, he told me that the tissue looked good and there was nothing to worry about.
Until his nurse called me at work the next day. You have cancer. Go to the clinic. You have an appointment with an oncologist. Wait as long as necessary to speak with her.
Thus began my journey with breast cancer six years ago. My daughters were merely 1 and 3 years old.
At first I had so many questions that I didn’t know where to begin. What does Her2 positive mean? What is the prognosis for IBC? Why had no one detected the IBC? What is going to happen to me? After chemotherapy started, my brain became too cloudy to hold on to new questions that sprung up in between doctor’s visits, so I started jotting my questions down in a notebook and bringing it to my appointments.
Now I am 2 years past my second mastectomy, and I am NED—no evidence of disease. NED is the closest medical declaration for “cured” that will ever be handed to someone with stage 4 breast cancer. Indefinitely, now, is lovely. Indefinitely stretches out before me, three weeks at a time, as the anti-Her2 drips into my bloodstream and prevents new cancer from emerging. Indefinitely includes chaperoning my daughters’ elementary school field trips, gardening with my husband, hiking with my brother, and traveling around the world to give presentations on microbiology. That which used to scare me now empowers me. Indefinitely.
Do you know how long you will live? Neither do I. There are no data to inform my prognosis. The survival rates are poor for Her2 positive cancers, pretty awful for IBCs, and positively abysmal for stage 4 cancers. But one of my anti-Her2 drugs has only been on the market for a few years, so there are no data on long-term survival rates for patients who have been treated with this drug. I am generating the data with each breath. Because of this, no doctor can project how long I will live. That makes me not so different from most people. And we all have so very much living yet to do.
--excerpted from "Don’t Be Afraid To Be Your Own Advocate" by Heather Allen, published in Living Well Magazine in October 2016. [I did not give my piece that ugly title! I had much more creative titles that the editor apparently didn't appreciate.]
To read the full article, please visit my article at Living Well Magazine.