Cross-posted from Not Just About Cancer.
When I embarked on this cancer journey a year and 7 months ago, I wrote about the terror of standing on a cliff, looking down and not being able to see what was at the bottom of the canyon. I knew I had to get down but I wasn’t quite sure how I would do it or what obstacles I would encounter along the way. Like any experienced hiker knows, the only way down is to start walking, so that’s what I did, taking each obstacle as it came into view on my path –surgery, chemo, heart problems, my children’s reactions, exhaustion, doctors appointments and more surgery– never looking too far forward, always concentrating on the issue at hand. One foot in front of the other, each step getting me slightly closer to the end.
Well, I am happy to report that as of this week, I have finally reach the bottom of the gorge. Two days ago my oncologist walked into her office where I sat waiting for my chemo treatment and announced, “Bet you never thought you’d see this day !”
I was completely caught off guard. “Huh? What? That’s it? Are you sure?”
Dr. Anderson left the office to double check that her numbers were correct and came back to confirm that yes indeed this would be my very last chemo treatment. All right then. Bring it on.
As I sat in the leather lounge chair receiving what would be my last drops of Herceptin through my port, I was filled with a mix of emotions — a combination of relief and let down. I had had no time to prepare for this momentous occasion. I was robbed of the 3 weeks of anticipatory excitement-building that often is the best part of any occasion. The Senior Prom is OK, but the lead up is what is really great–buying the dress, getting a tan. Vacations? Having them to look forward to is the key. Looking forward to something is always way better than the actual event. To make matters worse, my favorite oncology nurse, Heidi, who had been with me since the beginning, was on vacation, so a virtual stranger hooked me up to my last infusion. She was nice — but she didn’t know me like Heidi knew me.
So when the IV line beeped, signifying my bag of medicine was empty,and my port was de-accessed, I headed for the elevator, said goodbye like any other day and walked through the garage to my car. I left that building that I had visited every 3 weeks– sometimes more often than that even– for the last year and a half. I left that building, the halls of which almost 2 years ago signified a beacon of hope in an otherwise bleak forecast to my future — I left, looking for a parade in my honor. Of course, there was no parade; just the garage attendant who took my money and stamped my ticket like he had every other day. I drove home.
The next day, amid a deluge of rain, I drove back to the Hospital District. This time I was headed over to the Brigham for another milestone in this crazy cancer hike — the final mile. I was scheduled for my first mammogram since being diagnosed with Stage 2 Her 2 neu/er/pr positive Breast Cancer. The rain served a perfect distraction for my drive down route 93. I needed to concentrate so as not to hydroplane –being nervous about my mammogram was not an option.
The great thing about having had a mastectomy is that a mamogram takes half as long. They only need to squash one side into a virtual breast pancake and x-ray the insides. The other side — my silicone fake breast is spared the embarrassment and pain. Not that the cancer can’t form around the implant, it’s just that the machine cannot detect it. That’s where Dr. Christian comes in.
It was wonderful to see my surgeon, Dr. Christian again. He bounded into the exam room with my mammogram results in hand, ” Terrific news,” he said, his Johnny-Carson eyes twinkling. Dr. Christian uses words like ‘terrific’ and ‘swell’ all the time without it sounding goofy and he makes me want to use those words too.
“You look terrific,” he said.
“I feel terrific,” I say, letting the word roll off my tongue like Tony the Tiger.
It was all good news. After he examined me, he gave me a clean bill of health for a whole year and sent me on my way. Again, I looked for the parade as I walked to the garage attendant, paid my bill and headed for my car. It was when I sat in the driver’s seat that it hit me — this journey is over. Seriously over. And the tears came as hard as the rain outside. The tears came in waves that wouldn’t stop. They were tears of overwhelming relief that I had come through this very scary thing — I had survived, I had kicked it’s ass. I realized sitting in my car that I had barely cried throughout this battle. Only a little when I was first diagnosed but hardly at all. I was too busy concentrating on each step of the journey to let myself feel what was happening. I was too afraid that if I had fallen apart at any time during my treatment that I would not be strong enough to see it through to the end. I needed all my strength to fight. But there, in my car, with it all behind me, I could cry. And cry I did.
When I got home I called some friends to go out for drinks. I brought them to the bar I now work at. The place where I was still not sure if anyone liked me. We ordered martinis and everyone who worked there came over and congratulated me. The bartender Jim said, “Hey Fran, is this your parade?” as I sat at the bar with my girlfriends.
“Yup, it is, ” I said, “No sense waiting for someone to throw a parade in your honor, might as well make your own.”
And so I did.
There was an article in The Boston Globe the other day about Mass General Hospital in Boston. It seems that MGH will be the first hospital in the country to do mandatory genetic testing on every cancerous tumor they encounter. This is very cool. What they have found is that many of the tumors have similar characteristics to others and by treating them more specifically then they can do away with unnecessary over-treatments.
This type of testing is already done on most breast cancers now which is why they have Herceptin that treats specifically the her2/neu type of tumor (the kind I have). Herceptin will not work on non-her2 fed tumors. Hopefully the testing of each tumor in all sorts of cancers; lung, colon, etc will call for the invention of other Herceptin-like drugs used as targeted therapy and save patients the agony and side effects of many Chemotherapy treatment drugs that are not working.
Ten years ago Herceptin was not around and many died from their her2/neu type breast cancer. Now, with the help of the drug, many live long and happy lives. It is exciting to think that steps are being made toward more of these targeted drugs.
I often hear people complain that they think it is big business for drug companies to NOT find a cure for cancer. I don’t believe this. It just takes time and patience. Sometimes growth in any area of life comes in spurts. There are times it seems our own children will never grow up and then suddenly overnight, their shoes don’t fit and they need new jeans and they can talk in full senetences. I feel that this new step in cancer research is like a growth-spurt. Once we tap into the genetic make-up of these tumors, it will open up a whole new world of possibilities for treatment.
They say necessity is the mother of invention. Since personally I seem to know way too many people battling cancer right now, the necessity of MGH’s new plan seems obvious.
Read the full article here: