Does It Ever End?

Over the weekend, my favorite girl asked me to help her with a project for her biology class. She’s a freshman in high school now. This is what she looked like at age 8 when I was diagnosed with cancer. I took this photo the day before my bilateral mastectomy. mandjeffreyThis is my favorite girl today. fullsizerender

I know, right??? How does that happen???

Anyhoo, back to the story: my favorite girl is doing a project for her biology class on a disease or disorder that has a chromosomal component. She chose breast cancer.

She needed the basic info of my cancer: stage, treatment, etc., as well as ancillary materials (photos and such) that tell “the story” of her subject’s experience with said disease or disorder. I pulled out my bulging “cancer catch-all” — my binder that holds all my paperwork, like pathology reports. That was easy because it’s all facts: this scan was conducted on this date and found this. Then she asked for the not-so-easy part: details on how my cancer affected me. While there are indeed facts involved with that part too, something else is involved as well, which is what makes it, for me, the not-so-easy part.

Feelings. The dreaded feels.

I don’t like feeling the feels associated with my cancer experience. (I refuse to refer to it as my cancer “journey” because to me that word implies an end point. With cancer, there doesn’t seem to be an end point. I don’t like it, so I’m not gonna use that word.)

Six years out, I don’t think about my cancer experience nearly as much as I used to (hence the loooooooong periods of radio silence from this blog). As with most calamities, time does smooth out the rough edges. But with my favorite girl asking me for all the gory details, that dark period of my life surrounded me, again.

When, exactly, do we “get over” this? At what point does the calamity of cancer lose its potent punch? I’d like an ETA on the return of peace and tranquility. Can someone please tell me when to expect an easing from the powers of the cancer calamity? Because I need to know that at some point, cancer will no longer upend my day like a sucker punch and leave me reeling, wondering why I feel as I’ve been run over by a truck.

That will happen, right?

Even though my cancer experience is no longer the petulant toddler whining for a pack of Skittles in the grocery-store checkout area, apparently that cancer still packs quite a punch. The simple act of flipping through my medical binder to locate information for my girl’s project sent me on a one-way trip through bad memories and scary places. I see myself from a distance, as if I’m watching myself on a screen. In the blink of an eye, I’m no longer a survivor whose scars are a badge of courage. Instead, I’m instantly transported back to that time. Those days. That period.

I hate that cancer has the ability to do this. I hate that cancer still controls me. Like a bad habit or a selfish lover, my cancer has a hold on me. Other people’s cancers have that power over me, too. Like my sweet mama’s cancer. That rat bastard smiles and licks its lips, knowing it is the puppet master and I am the puppet.

I should know better than to expect to be “done” with cancer. After all, I’ve been thinking about it and blogging about it for years. As I wrote early in 2011:

Another things I’ve learned on my “cancer journey” is that someone keeps moving the finish line. I’ve only been at this for 10 months, yet have seen my finish line recede, sidewind, and fade into the distance. It starts even before diagnosis, with the testing that’s done to determine if we do indeed have a problem. Get through those tests, which in my case were a mammogram, an ultrasound or two, and a couple of biopsies. Then there’s the actual diagnosis, and getting through that becomes an emotional obstacle course. Following the diagnosis are lots of research, soul-searching, and decisions. But even when those are through, the real work is only just beginning. After the big decisions come still more testing (MRI, CT scan, PET scan, blood work, another biopsy), and that’s just to get to the point of having surgery. Get through surgery, then through recovery, and just when I think I may be getting “there” I realize that even after recovery, I gotta learn about re-living, which is kinda different when “normal” has flown the coop and there’s a new status quo involved. You might think that finding the new normal would be the end, but guess what? now there’s the maintenance and screening. If you’re the kind of person who makes a list and takes the necessary steps to reach the conclusion, you’re screwed, because there is no end. I can’t even see the goalposts anymore.

I should know damn good and well that there is no end. So why do I keep looking for it?

 

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The latest weapon against breast cancer?

The Hubs sent me a link to this story about the big news in the breast cancer world — the cancer-sensing bra. The First Warning Systems bra allegedly can detect a tumor in a breast years before said tumor would be found by more conventional screening methods. The “smart bra” is said to accurately screen abnormalities in breast tissue.

I saw my favorite breast surgeon today for my 6-month checkup, and had every intention of asking her what she thinks about this, but we got distracted talking about her puppy and our little piggie, and the possibility of implants for me, and the cruel injustice of the hormonal insanity that plagues a breast cancer warrior, and her upcoming Pretty in Pink event.

The First Warning Systems bra has been in development for the last 20 years, and while it sounds like a great idea, I sure wish they’d come up with a better name. As is, it sounds like a surface-to-air missile or something similarly militaristic and scary.

Of course, breast cancer is militaristic and scary, so touche.

The sports-bra-looking contraption contains sensors that supposedly can detect small changes in the temperature in breast tissue.  Cancer-causing cells emit more heat than normal, non-combative cells, and this bra is said to identify the changes in body temperature that may indicate that tumors are growing.  The maker of this “smart bra” says that in clinical trials, the bra correctly identified 92 percent of tumors, compared to the 70 percent of tumors found in baseline mammograms, and the bra can identify those tumors as much as 6 years before they’d show up on a mammogram. If all goes according to plan, the bras will be available for sale in Europe next year and the Unites States in 2014 with a retail price of approximately $1,000.00.

The company says that the bra provides women with a better form of breast self-exam when it’s worn for the duration of the testing period (although I’ve not found any references to how long or how often it needs to be worn or if the cost would be covered by insurance). Once the sensors do their sensing, the data is collected and submitted online, presumably by the woman wearing the bra, and then analyzed by “sophisticated algorithms.” I certainly wouldn’t want a naive algorithm to analyze my data.

Why am I not jumping up and down at this news, when it sounds quite promising?

Maybe because it’s Pinktober and I’m exhausted by all things breast-related.

Maybe because even if the First Warning Systems turns out to revolutionize breast cancer screening, it’s too late for me and many of my friends, whose lives have already been turned upside down by the dreaded disease, never to be fully righted again.

Maybe because after years of the “war on cancer” and “fighting for a cure,” progress has been slim to none and I don’t want to get my hopes up.

Maybe because there’s no mention in any of the literature about whether the “smart bra” is smart enough to figure out a way to fill in the divots caused by radiation, to smooth out scars left by mastectomies and reconstruction, to even out an asymmetrical rack, or to camouflage a less-than idea decolletage.

Or maybe because the “smart bra” doesn’t come in pink.

 

 


Houston, we have a vaccine…

Well, not officially, but the initial studies sure look promising.

Front-page news today in Houston declares that researchers at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center right here in my fine city have good things to say about results from an experimental vaccine. The researchers are hailing the potential vaccine as “a promising developement in an emerging field in cancer care.”

M.D. Anderson nurse Sara Stassen working on AE37
chron.com

Sounds mighty good to me.

Much has been written on the blogosphere about finding a cure — or, more accurately, the utter lack of progress in finding a cure — for this disease that fells one in eight women in the United States each year. The statistics are scary, and you can’t swing a cat without hitting someone who’s been touched by breast cancer. And by “touched by” I mean gobsmacked by. It’s a vicious, insidious, relentless disease, and in the decades of research, precious little progress has been made in finding a way to eradicate breast cancer.

All of that could change, however, with this potential vaccine.

It’s not too early to celebrate, is it?

Its focus is significantly reducing breast cancer recurrence. So it won’t eradicate the disease itself, but may (hopefully, please please please, fingers crossed, with sugar and a cherry on top) prevent women who have had BC from suffering a recurrence. Once BC comes back, no matter what stage it initially was or how effective the treatments were, you proceed straight to Stage IV and are considered incurable. That’s not to say the cancer can’t be managed, because it can, but it will never be cured. And therein lies the promise of this new potential vaccine.

I’ve gotten to know many Stage IV BC gals in the blogosphere, and their struggle is rough, to say the least. Ongoing treatment, escalating side-effects and financial burdens, and hopelessness are common in their fight. Not to mention mortality. Up front and in your face with Stage IV BC is mortality, in sharper focus and with a shorter shelf-life than ever imagined.

As one of the “lucky ones” in the cancer world considering my type of BC is lazy, slow-growing, and non-aggressive (touch wood here for good measure), I have a low recurrence rate. At least according to the charts and graphs and stats. That doesn’t mean I don’t think about it every single day, fear it and dread it. Even though I’m “lucky” and for all intents & purposes my cancer is gone, as I’ve learned from the brave cancerchicks who’ve gone boldly into the night before me, it’s never over, and the fear of recurrence is always there.

mdanderson.org

That’s where Dr Elizabeth Mittendorf comes in. She’s a professor of oncology at M.D. Anderson and this study’s chief investigator. She says that cancer researchers such as herself are “in the dawn of a new era” as they manipulate the immune system to recognize cancer cells and prevent or treat the disease.

The potential vaccine, called AE37, trains the body’s immune system to attack the infamous HER2 protein, which helps tumors grow and which is present in the vast majority of BC. One of the most important factors in a BC diagnosis is whether the cancer is HER2 positive or HER2 negative. Upon diagnosis, one waits to hear that HER2 status. HER2 positive breast cancers tend to be more aggressive and harder to treat. The hope with AE37 is that the proteins that make up HER2 will be taken down. Dr Mittendorf says, “If some rogue tumor cell is floating around, AE37 can recognize it and take care of it before it can settle into bone or other parts of the body. It’ll teach the T cells to recognize that HER2 protein. So the thought would be that if the T cells were educated in this way, if the tumor cell were to come back, the immune system could identify it, attack it and destroy it before the patient would have, as we see, a measurable recurrence.”

The beauty of AE37 is that it may be helpful in fighting other types of cancer as well. Because HER2 proteins occur in prostate, ovarian, and gastric cancers as well as in breast cancers, AE37 has a lot of potential across the board. For “lucky” breast cancer gals who are HER2 negative, like me, the potential vaccine may still be helpful. Dr Mittendorf is excited that the vaccine seems to reduce the risk of recurrent breast cancer in women who had both high and low levels of HER2. Mittendorf and her team studied 201 patients whose average age was 50 and who had previously had BC but who are currently cancer-free. Half of them received the vaccine, while the other half did not, and the initial results are encouraging. Mittendorf says, “We projected that breast cancer would come back for 10.3 percent of the women who got the vaccine compared with 18 percent of the women who had not been vaccinated. That translates to a 43 percent reduced risk of recurrent breast cancer.”

While AE37 won’t replace the traditional treatments — mastectomy, chemotherapy, and radiation — it could become part of standard care and would likely work in combination with the weapons currently used against the disease. The vaccine is given once a month for 6 months and then every 6 months for 3 years. While AE37 needs some fine-tuning, and a longer-term study would yield more information into its potential, this is very good, extremely hopeful news for those of us in the BC trenches. The fact that it may be able to cut recurrence rates nearly in half makes me giddy. The fact that this important research is taking place in my city is an added bonus. Kinda makes me want to run on down to Anderson and deliver some fresh-baked cookies to Mittendorf and her team. Just a little token of my appreciation for all their hard work. Should I make chocolate chip or snickerdoodles? In this case, I think I’ll make both.