We usually hear one of two cancer stories. (1) Woman gets cancer, woman gets treated for cancer, woman lives long life and eventually dies from something other than cancer (“heroic woman beats cancer”) (2) Woman gets cancer, treatments aren’t successful and woman dies (“woman loses heroic battle”).
Into these normal paradigms I bring Chris, a woman I’d never call normal. She’d kick my butt if I did. I met Chris virtually a few years ago on a local mom’s message board. Many of you remember, I am sure, reading about Ashley, a local woman who died of Inflammatory Breast Cancer in the summer of 2011. I met her on that board too and Chris was one of her closest friends, with her until the end.
In October, 2012, I posted a three-part story on Uneasy Pink about Chris, a woman who has been living with metastatic breast cancer for more than eleven years. Her story opens up all sorts of global implications – scientific, medical, political, and economic – but the most compelling thread is her personal one.
As you will read, Chris is raising her two grandsons, one of whom is profoundly disabled. When I first ran this story, many good-hearted and kind people asked me how they could help. Here is a way – by voting in this contest for Chris to win a handicap-accessible van. To summarize Chris’ words: Zane is getting older and bigger, Chris’ SUV is 20 years old.
Over the next few days, I am going to revisit Chris’s story. She has been a gift to my life, a true inspiration and a force of nature. I hope that by understanding her story, you can get a glimpse of that too and feel moved to get involved. Thanks again to Chris for allowing me to poke around the corners of her life.
In November of 1993, Chris was scratching her chest and felt a lump. “CRAP! CANCER!” she thought, because her great-grandmother and grandmother both had breast cancer. “Nah. No way. Twenty-eight year olds don’t get cancer,” she rationalized. So when it came time for her routine annual ob/gyn visit, she made a bargain with herself. If the doctor finds something, I’ll worry. If he doesn’t, I’m fine. He didn’t find it, Chris says, mostly because you couldn’t feel it when she was lying down.
In August of the following year, Chris had a vivid dream that she lost her hair due to cancer. Vain as any woman in her 20s, this was disturbing enough to prompt her to call her doctor. He told her it was probably all in her head, but he’d send her for a mammogram and ultrasound.
The ultrasound technician couldn’t find the lump and Chris spoke up — she could only find it sitting up. Chris sat up, and the tech found what Chris describes as “an octopus in my top right breast.” A week later she had a wire localization biopsy, which Chris describes as being like “a mammogram, but the plates had holes in them so they could insert a wire by the mass.” Sedated but awake, she watched them put her tumor in a jar.
Chris, her husband, and her mother were in the recovery room when the doctor gave them the news — cancer. Her mom cried, her husband fell back into a wall and Chris stayed cool and sarcastic. “Well shit,” she said, “I just paid a fortune to get my hair cut. What now?”
A lumpectomy and axillary dissection to check the lymph nodes under her arm came next. This was Chris’ first surgery, successful by all measures. There was a one centimeter by one centimeter tumor and surgeon was able to remove it all. Two lymph nodes were involved, and the tumor was estrogen-receptor positive. They staged her cancer IIB.
All of this is standard stuff when it comes to breast cancer and the prognosis was good.
In another surgery they placed her port then Chris began chemotherapy. Her first line of treatment, four rounds of Adriamycin and Cytoxan, gave her severe thrush and uncontrolled nausea. She is allergic to the standard nausea drug Zofran and no other anti-emetic was offered.
Chris’s cool sarcasm broke when her hair began to fall out on October 21st. For the first time, she cried.
Along with her four rounds of chemotherapy, the oncologist asked her if she wanted to enroll in a study of relatively new drug Taxol. A mother, Chris thought of her young daughter. “Did I give my daughter my eyes and stubby fingers AND breast cancer?” she asked herself. If she did, she wanted to be sure there were more drugs available when her daughter grew up, so she enrolled.
After the initial four treatments, the Taxol trial began. She was randomly assigned Taxol rather than the placebo. While she didn’t experience the nausea she had with the first line of treatment, the bone pain was horrendous. Taking steroids every hour for twelve hours before treatment made her gain 100 pounds in a month.
“Yeah, my luck,” Chris says, “I get the cancer that causes weight gain.”
Once the trial was completed, she moved on to radiation, which exhausted her. Driving to and from her radiation treatments was so tiring that she’d have to stop her car and rest on the side of the road.
During all this time, her marriage was falling apart. Once treatment ended and she was declared cancer-free, she asked her husband to leave. But in the process of moving forward with her life, she lost her insurance and could no longer to afford Tamoxifen, a hormone sensitive maintenance medication for Chris’s estrogen-sensitive cancer.
(to be continued)