“I’m sorry, but your breast cancer has spread to your liver.” These may be the words my oncologist used when he told me that I was now metastatic, but to be honest, I can’t recall them clearly. What I can remember is the emotions: shock, disbelief, and the feeling of doom.
From what I knew at the time, metastatic cancer was a death sentence.
Metastasis, the thing that all women with early stage cancer fear, happened to me only 4 months after my treatment ended. I thought, “How could this be?” I had been to stage 2A. I had no nodes. There was little to indicate that mets (metastasis) was going to be my fate.
I soon realized that “Why me?” is an unanswerable question. It doesn’t matter. It was me, and now my job was to live as long and as normally as possible … or so I thought.
Metastatic cancer strips life away from you bit by bit. First, it takes your health. Then it takes your time, your job, and finally your future. Sometimes, horribly, it even takes your friends or family. Those who can’t deal with a diagnosis of metastatic breast cancer drop away.
Magically, you rebuild in this new world. You find kindness in people you never knew cared. Their friendship unfurls in front of you like a flag. They send cards, bring food, and give hugs. They’ll do chores, take you to treatments, and even laugh at your corny jokes.
You learn that you’re more important to some people than you ever imagined and that these are the only people who count. They bolster you, and your spirits rise and fear dissipates.
The years since I was diagnosed haven’t always been easy, but you’ll note that I said years. Nobody gave up on me, including the most important person: my doctor. No end date was stamped on me, and progress was always expected. Some of the chemos I underwent worked for a time. Some didn’t, but we never quit.
I lost hair but grew spiritually. I felt happy that I was able to have surgery to remove the cancerous half of my liver, and sad when cancer grew back in what was left. Battle metaphors applied: Like a warrior, I got out my gamma knife and radiated it.
I slept more than I knew a human could, but the times I was awake were simple and joyful. Hearing the laughter of my sons or the buzzing of a hummingbird’s wings — those things kept me grounded and in the moment.
Amazingly, I am now cancer-free. Perjeta, a drug that was not on the market when I was diagnosed, has done what seven chemos, three surgeries, an ablation, and radiation couldn’t. It gave me my future back. I tentatively step ahead, but I won’t forget the lessons cancer taught me.
The present is where you must live when you have metastatic cancer. The future is only a dream, and the past is vapors. Today is all there is — not only for you but for everybody. This is the secret of life.