One of the reasons I moved to Orange County from New Jersey was because of the beauty and the rolling hills that are perfect for bike riding. I rode my bike as often as possible and participated in three different tours of 60 miles each.
In October 2009, I was riding my bicycle uphill when I became the victim of a hit-and-run truck driver. I received only superficial injuries; however, within a month my right breast had inexplicably hardened. By December, it was as hard as cement. At the time, I was in school working toward my BS degree and other women in my class comforted me as we worked hard on finals.
At the time I did not have health insurance other than that provided by the community college I was attending, so I convinced myself that the symptoms were from something benign since I had had mammograms for years (although not every year) and three of my sisters had benign breast tumors. I was lucky that this accident happened because it led to my diagnosis. We can rationalize anything when we want to, right?
It took me three months to find a doctor, surgeon and radiology clinic to diagnose me with invasive ductal carcinoma. I felt lucky that I didn’t have inflammatory breast cancer because I had read the prognosis for that was much worse. At this point, I had an inverted nipple and orange peel skin as well as the cement like breast.
A PET scan confirmed I had bone metastases, which means the breast cancer had spread to my bones. By this time, my husband managed to get us some good health insurance that is accepted by Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center which, even though it is located in New York — one and a half hours’ drive away from where I live — is one of the best cancer centers in the country. I knew this was where I had to go.
I was so lucky to have been given my medical oncologist, a breast cancer specialist who has tons of empathy and whose goal is helping me to live. My breast cancer was negative for the HER2 protein, so the HER2 protein was not causing the cancer, but estrogen was. I was premenopausal and tested negative for the BRCA genes. My breast tumor was 10 cm in size, about the size of a baseball. I started chemotherapy in April of 2010 with no end date. We were going to keep me on the chemo until I either was no longer responding or developed unacceptable side effects. Despite everything that was going on with the diagnosis and treatment, I finished the semester with a 3.8 GPA and a bald head.
By the fall semester, I served as president of the Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society and was taking two classes, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. Between classes, I drove home and rested for an hour. My attitude was, this is just a bump in the road that is not going to deter me from receiving the bachelors degree I had craved my entire adult life and yet was always too busy traveling for business to get.
In January, I started an oral hormonal treatment that only gave me joint pain. My hair was growing back and I was starting to feel like myself again. I took a triathlon training class where I was able to swim, bike ride, and jog (I couldn’t run). It was me and eight men under the age of 23. I didn’t care if I was the last one to finish; I just wanted to finish the class triathlon. And I did. My husband and I went to Montauk for Fourth of July weekend and I was jogging every day and kayaking on the ocean. It was as if I didn’t even have cancer.
However, by August, despite this treatment, my breast tumor was still active and the decision was made to have a mastectomy to avoid any local problems.
In September, I started school at SUNY New Paltz, an hour’s drive from where I live. I was finally on a college campus and I loved learning with men and women more than half my age. I finished the semester with a 4.0. The mastectomy was done in December 2011 (to avoid missing school) with an expander placed. Within 30 days, I was ready to start the next full-time semester. Nevertheless, I was going into the city weekly to expand the expander and finally, at the end of February 2012, I exchanged it for a silicone implant.
A month later, I started radiation to the breast. Since this was done Monday through Friday for five and a half weeks, I chose to have the radiation done at my cancer center’s satellite radiation clinic that was located only an hour’s drive away (no tolls or parking charges involved). This meant I was driving three to five and a half hours five days a week, to go to radiation and college for five and a half weeks.
A week before I finished radiation, I had weakness and pain in my right leg at the hip unrelated to the radiation. I was actually in Albany wearing a suit and heels to report on legalizing medical marijuana for my journalism class. Because of my non-journalistic interest in the topic, I was asked to be interviewed. I declined because I didn’t want to be the face of cancer or medical marijuana.
I could barely walk and had to pull my leg through the metal detector three times before they just let me go through. When I spoke to my doctor’s office about this the next day, they told me to go to Urgent Care at my cancer center immediately because it could be spinal compression, which can lead to paralysis. Needless to say, I rushed to the city. After a neurological exam and MRI, it was suspected that a tumor may have been pressing on the nerves at the hip. Okay, not bad. I wasn’t worried. My oncologist was going out of town, but she called me from the airport to let me know she was setting me up for a brain MRI, CT and PET scans, and bloodwork the following week and then she would see me on Friday. I wasn’t worried.
I went in and had the brain MRI and the CT scan and when I came out, I saw I had four calls from the cancer center and three from my husband. The replacement oncologist had received my brain MRI and was trying to call me. Instead, she called my husband to tell him that I had to get to the hospital immediately because I had brain tumors. Needless to say, he freaked. In fact, he was more freaked than I was. The MRI showed I had at least 10 enhancing lesions and one large cystlike tumor. This tumor was what was giving me problems walking. I was hospitalized to have a quick PET scan and a spinal tap because the PET scan showed suspicion of cancer in my spinal fluid. While I was in the hospital, on my laptop, I learned I received a 4.0 GPA from the four classes I took in the spring semester. How could I have brain lesions and a tumor when I was able to do so well in school? I also danced 10 times around the floor to “Moves Like Jagger” so that I wouldn’t have to get an injection for blood clots. My nurse loved me.
Luckily, my lumbar puncture was clear and I was released from the hospital and started radiation on my lower back and whole brain radiation (WBR) to my head. The mask I had to wear for the WBR made me feel like Hannibal Lecter. I also received six weeks of steroids and three different injections of an estrogen receptor antagonist. I also took an online class on Holocaust literature because I wanted to be reminded that there are others who are in a much worse situation than I was. Although it was really hard for me to do that one class, I got an A. In July, I had my last injection and was switched to a pill chemotherapy that crosses the blood brain barrier.
Now I was on a drug that would work on my brain, lung, liver and bone metastases. I am still bald from the whole brain radiation, but I am tolerating the oral chemotherapy very well. I am now attending SUNY New Paltz twice a week with two back-to-back classes. I can handle that.
In addition to traditional treatment, I also do yoga, meditate, exercise, am careful about my food intake, drink a lot of water every day and receive monthly (or more) reiki/qi gong healing sessions, acupuncture and various supplements. I have a loving husband of 25 years, an adult daughter, a brother who lives close and has stayed with me throughout my radiation to the brain, sisters and a brother who live far and yet came to visit this summer. I have good friends who support me along with MBC discussion boards. I am looking forward to attending a retreat for women with metastatic breast cancer at the Omega Institute sponsored by Breast Cancer Options at the end of September. I am grateful to be part of a group of amazing breast cancer fighters and I hope to help others who have to deal with this terrible disease. I am confident that this treatment or others will keep my metastatic breast cancer under control while I hope for a cure.
My future goals are to graduate with a degree in English with a minor in Journalism and to walk the Camino de Santiago de Compostela. If anyone wants to join me, give me a shout at N01961004@hawkmail.newpaltz.edu.