Category Archives: Death

Cancer Changes Everything


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I saw a meme the other day that said something like “cancer can take away my body parts but it can’t touch my mind, my heart, or my soul.” Lovely words, heroic even, if you don’t think about them too closely.  I thought about them very closely and found I disagreed strongly with the message.
One way to interpret this meme is the superficial positive message of, “I am more than my disease. I am still a real person under the scars and the bald head and the chemo sickness. I am still me in my mind, heart, and soul”.

On that level, I can accept the meme’s message. But when I look at the words as they are written, not searching for a positive hidden meaning, I find myself in total disagreement with them.

I don’t think we can compartmentalize our lives that easily. The physical changes impact the mind, the emotions, and the spirit. It is not just the physical changes that lead to mental and emotional distress. The very process of being diagnosed with a life-threatening disease plays havoc with our minds, emotions, and our spirits. We are more than the sum of our physical parts. Our bodies, minds, emotions, and spirits are all intertwined to make up the whole package of our being.  Our bodies don’t exist in some separate dimension away from the mental and emotional parts of our being.  I do not believe that we come out of the other side of a cancer experience the same person we were when we went in.

Dealing first with the physical changes that cancer brings upon us, they have an enormous impact on the mind, the heart (emotions), and the soul (the very core of our being and our belief system). Breast cancer treatment often strips us of our breast(s), our hair, our fertility, and sometimes our ovaries or even our whole reproductive system. Often times treatment pushes a woman into at least temporary menopause. For others, the menopause is early and is permanent. No matter what kind of treatment is involved, there is physical pain and sickness from surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation.

Our whole body image can change dramatically in only a few months time. Suddenly, all the physical attributes of what makes us female are gone. This plays havoc on our self-esteem and self-confidence. Yes breasts can be reconstructed, hair will grow back, fertility may be regained if we are very young and lucky or if we had the foresight to freeze eggs or embryos in advance of chemotherapy or gynecological surgery.

But breast reconstruction often involves multiple surgeries and for some, the end result is disappointing at best. And a reconstructed breast no longer has any feeling in it, no matter how cosmetically wonderful it may look.

Assisted reproduction techniques are not always successful. Chemotherapy can leave behind a permanent legacy of neuropathy (numbness in the hands and feet), hormonal drugs can lead to chronic joint pains, and surgical or chemically induced menopause symptoms can be more severe than natural menopause and are unlikely to be treated with hormonal supplements as these may reignite cancer.

With all these physical “side-effects” of cancer treatment, is it any wonder that many women feel distressed or depressed or highly anxious? When you look in the mirror and don’t even recognize the person you were 6 months earlier, it is bound to affect you mentally and emotionally. If you are in chronic pain and are suffering hot flashes at 30, it tends to change your outlook on life.

As far as cancer not being able to touch your mind,  I have one word for that. Chemobrain. It is real, it affects your memory, your concentration, and your ability to communicate effectively. It can feel as though you have had a mini-stroke as you dig through the filing cabinets of your mind to find that elusive everyday word you have used a million times before. Other times the right word is in your brain but a totally random word comes out of your mouth as if your brain and mouth were no longer connected. Then there is the disconcerting habit of losing things – your purse, your keys, your phone – only to find them right in front of you the whole time. So yes, cancer treatment can take away the mind for many of us, at least temporarily.

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As far as the heart or the emotions, just the very diagnosis of having a disease that can potentially kill you tends to strike fear and panic into your heart. You wait endlessly for pathology reports and the results of various scans to see if the cancer has spread. You worry about loved ones and how they will cope during treatment, or in the worst case scenario death, particularly if they are young children or aged parents that you normally care for.

Even when the cancer is caught at an early stage and the prognosis is good, most women are still highly anxious about a recurrence or a future diagnosis showing the cancer has spread. Once you have had cancer, you feel your body has betrayed you once and can do so again. Your sense of safety in the world has been irrevocably affected.  You have come face to face with your own mortality, realizing you just might not live to a ripe old age. These factors can bring on depression, anxiety, panic attacks, and in some cases, PTSD. So yes, cancer can and usually does attack the heart (emotions) as well as the body.

Finally, your soul or your very essence of being can be adversely affected as your perspective on life changes. Some of the changes may be for the good in that you start to appreciate the people and things around you more as you feel you came close to losing them. But it can also make you more wary of planning for the future, knowing that cancer could re-enter your life at any time.

You suddenly become aware that many women are dying of this disease, women your age and younger, as well as women whose cancers were also detected early and were given an excellent prognosis.  The world of cancer seems very random, more like a roll of the dice than like the orderly world of the cancer media which says early detection will keep you safe. You may search for ways to put yourself in control of your cancer by completely changing your diet and lifestyle only to hear about organic vegans who ran triathlons and died of cancer anyway. When you realize that the difference between living and dying of this disease seems to be more a matter of luck than anything else, your previously optimistic view of an orderly controlled world is essentially gone for good.

Perhaps I am presenting an overly pessimistic view due to my personal history of having breast cancer 4 times. It is a rarity in the breast cancer world to have cancer strike 4 times and not spread beyond the breast. I am grateful that I have been spared from Stage 4 cancer multiple times, particularly as I also have a BRCA1 mutation to contend with.

But even “good” recurrences like mine come with a huge emotional and spiritual price tag attached. I am constantly looking over my shoulder waiting for cancer to strike again. It is impossible for me to believe that this time I have “beaten” cancer as it keeps coming back for another round. Even if my breast cancer days are over, the BRCA1 mutation means I am susceptible to other forms of cancer that may be waiting in the wings to strike when I least expect it.

I don’t blame cancer for all the problems in my life. But I would be lying if I said that cancer didn’t have a negative impact on all areas of my life. I don’t believe cancer only took physical body parts away from me. It took much more of a toll on my emotions and spirit that I tried my best to cover up for many years. I am still happy with my life but I miss the wide eyed optimist I used to be. I don’t think she is ever coming back again and that makes my mind, heart, and spirit sad.

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It’s My Cancerversary…And I Don’t Feel Like Celebrating


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After 4 breast cancers since 1988, I’ve lost track of the usual markers of cancerversaries. I can remember month and year of diagnoses but can no longer keep specific dates in my head. Also, there is confusion about what date to use for 3 of my cancers where the words and behavior of mammogram technicians and doctors resulted in my”knowing” I had cancer before the official biopsy results were in.

In any event, February 1988 marked my first breast cancer diagnosis at 29. That makes it 27 years of “living on borrowed time” as that first cancer was caught by me through a fluke of accidentally touching the right place at the right time and following up immediately with my doctor. Had it not been for the accidental touch, the tumor would have continued to grow and may well have spread into Stage 4 cancer.

Last year, I was very excited about making it to 26 years since first diagnosis. Maybe part of what makes me uneasy about claiming 27 years of survival is that I had a total of 4 breast cancers during this period. Other people seem to count their survival status as cancer free time and start counting again from zero once they have had a recurrence. If that is the “right” way to do things, I guess I am only a 3.5 year survivor as my last breast cancer was in July, 2011. Do people think I am a fraud claiming 27 years of survivorship when many of those years were spent in treatment for new primary cancers and recurrences? I am always careful to say 27 years from first diagnosis so I don’t think I am misleading anyone.

What really has me bothered this year is that for the last 6 weeks or so, my Facebook feed has been filled by the deaths of so many young breast cancer patients. It seems every 2 or 3 days, someone from one of my Facebook groups has passed on, leaving a young family behind.

This year I felt uncomfortable announcing 27 years of survival from first diagnosis under the circumstances of all the surrounding death in the air. Some people say they draw hope from my longevity, particularly in light of the multiple bouts of triple negative cancer, my BRCA1 status, and my lack of what would now be considered optimal treatment for someone with my history.

On the other hand, I don’t doubt that it strikes resentment in some people’s hearts that I continue to live despite all the odds stacked against me while others die shortly after diagnosis or after being told their prognosis was excellent as their cancer was detected early, they received aggressive treatment, and they were BRCA negative.  Announcing 27 years of longevity in this atmosphere, seems a bit like bragging or gloating, which is the last thing I want to do. I have no idea why I am still alive considering all the cards stacked against me. All I can do is get philosophical and say this just isn’t my time to die. I have no secrets for longevity or avoiding Mets and we all know I have no secrets for avoiding recurrences!

Along with the tragic death announcements, there has been an increase in the  amount of posts from women speculating on what caused their cancer and what they can do to prevent a recurrence. I have no answers for either causation or prevention. I have said before that cancer seems pretty random to me striking both triathlete vegans and self-admitted couch potatoes and everyone in between. I have yet to see a strong pattern or have an aha moment where all the pieces of the puzzle fall into place for me. The same goes for recurrences and metastasis. Those who radically change their eating habits and make other lifestyle changes seem as likely to have their cancer come back as a recurrence or a metastasis as do those who change very little. After 27 years of watching cancer prevention tips come and go and sometimes be turned completely around (I just read that high doses of soy are good for preventing cancer after 20 years of it being cited as a cancer promotor), I personally have little faith in these promises of prevention or a cure.

Along with the string of deaths, there seem to be an unusually high number of women experiencing either local recurrences or Mets. The combination of the deaths and the disease progression have created high levels of anxiety in the support groups. You start to wonder if you are next in line for some cancer catastrophe to strike your life. This probably explains all the comments about cancer causation and prevention.

I want to feel good about my 27 years of post-diagnosis survival. The road has been hard and bumpy and like everyone else, I have no idea what is around the next corner. I have spun the cancer Wheel of Fortune 4 times now and have been lucky to have only local recurrences. But how many times can you spin that wheel and avoid the slots marked for metastasizes and death? I think I have used up all my get out of jail free cards and if forced to spin again, I don’t anticipate a 5th local recurrence.

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Intellectually, I know the deaths and disease progressions will level out in time. But in the meantime, these events are extremely stressful for everyone involved. It’s not a good time to be celebrating a long-term
cancerversary in the midst of all this pain.

So I will be privately pleased to still be alive and able to watch my children grow up. At the same time, I will continue to mourn for the lives lost or forever altered by new recurrences or metastic disease. This will be a very quiet celebration of life and one that I will not take for granted. Thinking of my fallen pink sisters, I think “there but for the grace of God go I”.

Sharon Greene. February4, 2015

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Happy Holidays From Cancerland


It is almost that time of year again. The shopping malls have been decorated for Christmas since Halloween. Almost every radio station is playing Christmas music around the clock. If you have young children, they are excitedly waiting for Santa to come and visit. If you have preteens or teenagers, they are preparing their holiday wish lists and fully expecting Mom to buy them every item, no matter how high the cost.

Christmas movies paint a serene picture of the family hanging stockings together, opening the perfect presents (no socks or underwear) under a magnificent Christmas tree, and gathering together at a table groaning under the weight of every food imaginable. Some families probably do have Disney worthy Christmases but for most of us, there are some less than picture perfect moments.

I recall Christmases where my daughter was so excited, she threw up under the Christmas tree. Then there were the Christmases of my youth where people would start drinking too early and by dinnertime would be rude and belligerent. (This was also usually accompanied by someone throwing up). The presents were often bought during the peak of the holiday shopping season in understaffed stores filled with testy shoppers, creating huge amounts of stress. The feast on the table was often prepared by one woman, usually Mom, who baked cookies for weeks and was up at the crack of dawn preparing the turkey and side dishes. The poor woman was so exhausted by dinnertime that she couldn’t even enjoy the food she had so painstakingly prepared.

These less than perfect holiday moments can be enough to throw a healthy person into a tizzy. Now throw breast cancer into the mix and it is easy to understand why many patients and survivors dread the winter holiday season.

It isn’t just Christmas or Hanukkah that bring forth these feelings of anxiety and dread. Thanksgiving, children’s birthday parties, New Year’s Eve, and anniversaries can also be difficult times for patients, survivors, and their families. Although this post focuses on Christmas, it is called “happy holidays” for non-politically correct reasons. The issues outlined below can surface on any special event where people are supposed to be celebrating with others and the expectation is that everyone is filled with happiness and joy.

If life was fair, cancer would be diagnosed or treated on a calendar system in which these events would only occur at the least stressful times of the year.  I was going to say they would only occur at a convenient time but there is no convenient time of the year to have cancer.

Unfortunately, people receive cancer diagnoses or news of recurrences or metastases year round, including right before the Christmas season (or other important events). The shock of receiving this kind of news makes it difficult to want to celebrate and be festive with distant relatives or friends. As well as trying to process the bad news, there is often a sense of guilt about ruining everyone else’s Christmas/Hanukkah/Kwanza if you talk about cancer. Somehow rushing around the mall for presents or cooking a major meal seems trivial and pointless in the larger sense of the life and death issues you are facing. You may not be ready to share your news with the extended family, yet at the same time, cancer is all you think about. New Year’s Day with its emphasis on making resolutions for the year aheadwpid-christmas-pug-cute-little-gog-in-santa-hat_fj-oqt_u-1.jpg

can bring on depression if you are worried that this may be your last year alive. Even if you don’t anticipate dying, it is hard to make positive resolutions when you know you will be spending much of the new year facing surgery, chemotherapy, and/or radiation treatments.

For those already in treatment or recovering from surgery, there are even more challenges to face. You feel unwell. You ARE unwell. All the preparations for the holidays are too overwhelming to cope with. There is no way you will be baking, cooking, and cleaning, to prepare a feast for a crowd of people. Even preparing a simple Christmas meal with only your immediate family may be enough to knock you out for the next few days.

If you are having chemotherapy, the smell of certain foods may make you feel nauseous. Chemotherapy often affects the taste buds making even favourite foods taste unpleasant. Painful mouth sores can make any kind of eating feel like torture. Fatigue and loss of appetite are also common side effects of chemotherapy. Finally, you may be warned by your oncologist to avoid crowds as your immune system is weakened. Shopping malls and large family gatherings may be more than just exhausting. They may make you so sick, you end up hospitalized. This happened to me 3 years ago and I spent the entire 4 day Thanksgiving holiday in the hospital with a fever and a white blood count of zero.

Radiation treatment and surgery bring on their own challenges. As well as feeling exhausted, you may be in pain from radiation burns or in all the places where the surgeon cut into your body. You may be taking heavy duty painkillers that wreak havoc with your mind, appetite, and digestive system. You may not have the energy to sit up for long periods of time socializing and making small talk with people you are not especially close with the rest of the year.

Even when active treatment has come to an end, the depression and anxiety associated with losing your medical safety net can leave you feeling less than merry or jolly. The holidays are difficult for most depression sufferers as the rest of the world looks so happy while you feel hopeless and miserable inside. Your fears of a recurrence or metastasis may be heightened right after treatment has ended and the oncologist says, “see you in 3 months”. It’s a scary time as you try to transition from full-time cancer patient to finding your “new normal”. People may be expecting you to bounce right back to your old life once treatment ends. You may feel like you still have one foot in the cancer world and the other foot in mid-air, looking for a safe landing spot in the post-treatment land.

BRCA1 and BRCA2 families have their own special problems with family celebrations. They may be grieving the loss of those relatives who were taken from the world too soon because of cancer. Those who are previvors may worry about their own upcoming surgeries or question their decision to opt for surveillance. Watching the young children and teenagers of their extended families, they may worry as to what lays ahead for them in the future.

For some people, the holidays may still be fun and joyous as it is a welcome distraction from thinking about cancer. You may welcome the break from the trudgery of treatment. Depending on the type of gathering, you may only be surrounded by the people you love most in the world and find their company soothing and comforting. Particularly if you have children, you may make an all out effort to give them great Christmas (or birthday) memories just in case things go terribly wrong and you want them to remember you as something other than a sick Mom.

With my 4 cancers, I have been in diagnosis, treatment, or recovery mode on every major holiday and special event over the years. During Cancer 4, there was Thanksgiving in the hospital, my then 11 year old son’s birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese, and my then 9 year old daughter’s birthday party at a go cart track on a very windy day, while clutching onto my wig for dear life! It wasn’t always easy and it wasn’t always fun, but I’m glad we made some good memories on those occasions. Christmas and my birthday also fell during chemotherapy but both of those events were very low key affairs as that was all I was capable of doing at the time.

The truth is nobody actually lives in a Disney movie, not the healthy and not the sick. Christmas or Thanksgiving or your birthday can be whatever you want it to be and whatever you are capable of doing. If you want company and all the trappings of Christmas, see if someone else can do the heavy lifting for you. Instead of you making the dinner, see if someone else can host Christmas this year. Or choose to celebrate more casually with your immediate family at home or at a Christmas buffet in some fancy restaurant where you won’t be forced to make small talk with a relative you barely know.

To cut down on holiday stress, avoid the shopping malls and make all your purchases online. Spring the extra few dollars for them to be gift wrapped. Let your children decorate the tree however they want, no matter how untraditional the results may be. Do everything you can to pamper yourself, whatever that may look like to you. Get a lot of rest, take deep breaths, and don’t be afraid to reach out to someone, anyone, for help. Create a holiday that brings you peace instead of stress, joy instead of anxiety, even if it means abandoning all your former ideas of what a traditional holiday should be. Happy Holidays to everyone in Cancerland and to all the people who love them!

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Sharon Greene December 11, 2014

What the Media Doesn’t Tell Us About Breast Cancer


Over the past 2 decades, the media
has painted a picture of the ideal breast cancer survivor. We see a smiling white middle aged woman telling the world how she beat breast cancer with her positive attitude and her unwillingness to ever give up the fight. She doesn’t just stop with the lessons of how she beat breast cancer. She continues her story with how having conquered cancer, her whole life has changed for the better. To her, cancer was the greatest gift she ever received from the benevolent universe.

We sometimes hear that her reconstructed breasts look better than
they did pre-cancer. How lucky she was to have gotten a free boob job! The hair loss was a bit of a drag but it grew back better than before. She speaks of how breast cancer has brought her closer to  her friends and family.  Breast cancer was a tiny blip in her life, no more annoying or life threatening than a root canal. Breast cancer has been described as the “good” cancer to get as everyone wears pink, races around a lot, and nobody ever dies.

I have no doubt that this does represent reality for some breast cancer survivors. It is also possible that some of these smiling women have repressed the worst aspects of their breast cancer experience and are choosing to only publicize the positive things that happened along the way. They present their stories through a gauzy pink veil that filters out the bad memories leaving only the good. We don’t see pictures of the very young or the pregnant or the Stage 4 breast cancer patients. We don’t see many pictures of women as they are trudging through treatment, pale and bald.  We don’t hear about the single mothers who go through treatment with little family support. We don’t see the black faces or the Asian, or the Hispanic ones. The media has painted a simplified and unrealistic picture that doesn’t accurately reflect the many faces or feelings of breast cancer.

The problems with this stereotype are many and they are troubling. Most survivors I”ve met in person or online do not relate to breast cancer being the greatest experience of their life. They remember the fear they felt when first diagnosed. Until they had the tumour removed and all the tests done, they didn’t know if the cancer had spread and if they were already dying. They remember the pain of their treatment, whether it was surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, or some combination of all  three. They may have received a lot of emotional and practical support during the diagnostic and the early treatment phases of their cancer only to find people slipping away the more time passes.
 
        
If they had reconstruction on one or both breasts, there may have been multiple painful surgeries involved with tissue expanders, implants, or the removal of another body part (skin and muscle from the stomach, back, or buttocks) to create the new breast(s). The end result of this surgery may still leave them with body image issues with the reconstructed breast not matching the natural one, the implant becoming hard and encapsulated with scar tissue, or even the body rejecting the transplanted body part and the person being left with no breast(s) at all, either temporarily or permanently. And what is never mentioned is that even if the reconstructed breasts look cosmetically wonderful, almost all feeling and sensation is gone. Forever.

Women are often fearful of the cancer recurring again or it spreading and metastisizing to their bones, lungs, liver, or brain. They may fear leaving young children behind should their cancer spread and they die.  They may find their shaky marriages dissolving from the extra weight of a cancer diagnosis. They will soon learn who their true friends are and will watch others in their life simply disappear as news of their breast cancer becomes known.

About 10% of breast cancer patients will learn that they are already Stage 4 at the time of the initial diagnosis. Another 30% will reach this stage eventually even if their initial cancers were caught at an early stage. There is no Stage 5. Stage 4 means the cancer has already spread elsewhere in the body. It can only be treated, not cured. Stage 4 is the only kind of cancer that kills although medical advances have allowed women to live longer with Stage 4 cancer than ever before. But for these women, chemotherapy and other treatments may go on for the rest of their lives, to keep the cancer from spreading even further.  They will never “beat cancer”. Their stories aren’t popular in the media.

Other women like myself will have cancer recurrences or grow new primary breast cancers in the same or the other breast. We do not die from local recurrences but the fear is even greater the second (or third or fourth time around). We know we are pushing our luck on the cancer wheel of fortune. How often can we keep catching recurrences in time before they spread into distant body parts? You don’t see many women in commercials saying I thought I beat cancer once but then it came back and I am in treatment again. This doesn’t fit with the storyline that if it is caught early and you survive 5 years, you have beaten cancer.

Stage 1 – 3 patients may be strong and full of fighting spirit while going through treatment but then fall apart when treatment ends. This is a fairly common occurrence as it feels that
your medical safety net is gone without the constant monitoring of your health by medical professionals. While active treatment can be very tough, there is still something reassuring about being seen by a medical team on a regular basis. Also, cancer treatment is like a full-time job with numerous appointments to see oncologists, plastic surgeons, and lab technicians. It is easy to set milestones and goals – 1 chemo down, 5 more to go. Treatment gives structure to your days and a final goal to keep working towards – the end of treatment. When that abruptly comes to an end, many survivors are left wondering, “what happens now?”

Friends and family may not be as supportive now that treatment is over. They feel that the worst is over now that you have completed surgery , chemotherapy, and/or radiation. They move on to other people and things, leaving you alone at a time when you might need their emotional support the most.                      

You may feel pushed and rushed by others to immediately resume your pre-cancer life once treatment ends and to put all that negative cancer stuff behind you. You may question yourself as to why you aren’t bouncing back from treatment more quickly like your friends, family, and the pink media ladies say you should. Your doctors may tell you to find your “new normal” before you even have had time to reflect on the very abnormal process that you have just experienced. 

Once you have had cancer, every follow- up oncologist appointment and every new scan, mammogram, or blood test brings anxiety levels up sky high again. Every new headache could be a brain tumour and every new ache and pain could be a sign that the cancer has spread to your bones.

You may wonder to yourself what you are doing wrong – why you didn’t find your pot of gold at the end of the pink rainbow.   

It does a disservice to those newly diagnosed and those just starting their cancer treatment process to portray breast cancer survivors as a uniformly brave, strong, courageous, and positive group of women. We survivors are all those things and more. But we are also scared, anxious, in pain, confused, disoriented, and angry at times. And that is normal. And that is okay.

Doctors have known for decades that a cancer diagnosis is an extremely stressful event and freely hand out anti-anxiety medication throughout the treatment process. They have heard their chemotherapy patients complain for years about “chemo brain” where forgetfulness and short term memory loss are common features that linger on after chemotherapy ends. They know many women suffer from the shock of a completely altered body with their breasts removed by mastectomy, their hair lost to chemotherapy, and their reproductive systems pushed into early menopause, either temporarily or permanently, by chemotherapy. New American studies have shown that approximately 25% of breast cancer patients will suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder sometime between diagnosis and the end of treatment. European studies have placed that number at closer to 50% of patients.

Many of these newly diagnosed women are in their 20’s and 30’s, just starting careers or families. Many received their breast cancer diagnosis while pregnant or while still breast feeding shortly after giving birth. Others are encouraged to undergo fertility treatment before starting chemotherapy so that their eggs can be frozen in the event that premature ovarian failure or permanent menopause prevents a future pregnancy.

More women each year are being tested for genetic defects that can hugely increase their risk of breast and ovarian cancers. If they test positive for a mutation, they will be strongly encouraged to have a double mastectomy and to have their ovaries and fallopian tubes removed by age 35. If they test positive for a mutation, this becomes a family affair with the whole immediate and extended family having to decide if they too should be tested to see if they also have the same genetic mutation. If a woman already has children, she will learn that each of her children, male and female, have a 50% chance of also inheriting this mutated gene. As genetic testing is not carried out on children, she will have to wait until they turn 18 and decide whether to get tested to see if she has passed her mutated gene onto her children.

It can be encouraging to read stories of women who have survived for many years after a cancer diagnosis without a recurrence or without the cancer spreading. All the memes on the internet urging you “to fight like a girl” or “to beat cancer’s ass” or even the more blunt and to the point, “Fuck cancer”, can be very empowering for both the woman undergoing treatment and the long term survivor. But I know for myself that it is difficult to stay in fighter mode 24 hours per day, 7 days per week. Again, speaking only for myself, I can’t live on a constant diet of positivity messages when I read or talk about cancer. It is like living on a high sugar diet. After awhile, the sugar buzz fades and I come crashing down. Hard.

Cancer has definitely changed my life, not always for the better. I need to read about the struggles of the newly diagnosed, the stories of women going through treatment, and especially the stories of the women with Stage 4 cancer. I need the grit of painful reality so I don’t forget where I came from and what I went through. I need these stories so I don’t sugar coat my story for the next person struggling with some of breast cancer’s less positive realities, thinking to myself that cancer or treatment or facing multiple new primaries wasn’t all that bad. It was that bad and some days still is. What is your cancer story? Do you prefer only to read positive stories or can you make room for some less positive ones as well?

Sharon Greene November 23, 2014

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How the BRCA1 Gene Devastated a Small Family (Mine)


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My mother, Lily Koval Brown, died exactly 22 years ago today of metastatic cancer. Her sister Joyce Koval Lamb died of metastatic cancer July 4, 1984. Their stories are completely different as mine is from theirs, but the one thing we all had in common was a mutation in our BRCA1 gene. Of course at the time of their deaths, the BRCA genes had not been discovered so it seemed like a sad coincidence that both died of cancer and that I, my parent’s only child, had breast cancer at 29.

One of my earliest memories of discussing breast cancer with my mother was watching an old 60’s movie on tv called “Valley of the Dolls”. In that movie, one of the characters played by the actress Sharon Tate (later to be infamously murdered by Charles Manson) learned she had breast cancer. Her solution to dealing with this disease? Suicide.

I remember my mother commenting that there was no way anyone would ever remove her breast. This was in the mid-70’s when breast cancer was firmly in the closet. It was also easy for my mother to make this comment as cancer didn’t seem to run in our family. With only her parents in Canada and the rest of the extended family still in Russia, we had no real idea if cancer did or didn’t run in our family.

I am not sure when my aunt first noticed the lump in her breast. It had to have been before 1979 as that year, at the age of 19, I moved to the city where she lived, not knowing a soul. My mother asked if I could stay with her for a short time or if she could at least help me find a place of my own. I gather the answer to both requests was a panicked no but she would be happy to talk to me by phone whenever I wanted.

Two years later, my parents split up and my mother moved to the same city where my aunt and I lived. She could never get my aunt to meet her in person although they did have long friendly telephone conversations. We didn’t suspect anything sinister about my aunt’s refusal to meeting us in person. We speculated she had grown eccentric and reclusive over the years although she was only 50.

Things came to a head when my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1980. She never did have to make the decision about choosing her breast or choosing her life. The doctors recommended a lumpectomy, a new operation that spared the majority of her breast. This procedure was so new that radiation was not part of the treatment program. While my aunt sent a bouquet of flowers, she still wouldn’t make the effort to visit in person which hurt my mom deeply. The telephone conversations became fewer and shorter until they ceased completely.

The next news we had of my aunt came from her husband 2 years later. She was in the hospital as she had stopped breathing. My mother rushed to the hospital without any forewarning of what to expect. She found a skeletal woman in a hospital bed who appeared to be about 10 months pregnant.

My mother pieced the story together as best she could. It started with a breast lump that my aunt refused to get checked out by a doctor. Somehow over time, the cancer became physically apparent which was when she became a recluse. She had no medical diagnosis or treatment whatsoever until the time of her hospitalization. I still don’t know exactly what her cancer status was. It’s safe to assume she started with breast cancer but whether the huge abdomen was from metastatic breast cancer that had spread or if she developed another primary cancer or 2 along the way, no one knows for sure. The medical staff wanted to start chemotherapy but she refused as she didn’t want to lose her long hair. It wouldn’t have made much of a difference at that stage as her cancer was too advanced. She died a few days later in the hospital, long hair still intact.

My mother was flourishing in her new single life. She was always very upbeat and made friends quickly wherever she went. She reached the 5 year “cure” rate for breast cancer and we talked about how she made a much better decision about her cancer than her sister did. There was no thought of the cancer striking another part of her body, despite my aunt’s swollen abdomen, as we assumed this was just what untreated breast cancer looked like.

Fast forward a year and I got a call from my Mom that she would be having surgery for suspected ovarian cancer. They found her cancer had metastisized throughout her whole reproductive system and there was a further inoperable tumour behind her heart. She spent a year in a very aggressive chemotherapy program that resulted in long term side effects such as loss of hearing in one ear. She was determined to beat cancer and had the support of her many friends and work colleagues. Her hospital rooms always seemed like party central with people packed into the small room. If a positive attitude and social support could cure cancer, my Mom would still be alive today.

I had my first breast cancer two years later at 29. She flew to the city where I was now living and stayed with me through my lumpectomy and 6 weeks of radiation. The only time she was less than supportive of me was when she learned I had signed up for a clinical trial that would compare patients given one round of chemotherapy before surgery to those that had surgery alone. She did not want me taking chemotherapy under any circumstances. As it turned out, I was in the surgery alone group, so much to her relief I escaped chemotherapy that time around.

My Mother made it to 4 years past surgery for ovarian cancer only to learn she had developed a third primary cancer in her colon. The cancer was surgically removed and she had a temporary colostomy bag that she would have to wear for a year. Coming home from the hospital, she broke down crying tears of frustration and anger. It was one of the few times she ever showed me what an emotional and physical toll all these cancers had on her mind, body, and spirit.

A year passed and she had the reversal surgery for her colon cancer so she no longer needed to use the colostomy bag. She had now passed the 5 year mark for metastic ovarian cancer and the 10 year mark for breast cancer.

She had about 10 more good months of life. The best thing I did was spontaneously make the 12 hour drive to visit her in the summer of 1992. Everything seemed to be going great and we planned a side trip to a national park in Montana. On the day we were to leave, my mother sheepishly asked if I would mind cancelling our trip as she wasn’t feeling well. She strongly encouraged me to drive back home even though I had planned on staying a few days longer.

Reluctantly, I returned home. Within a week she called to tell me she would be having colon surgery again as another mass had been found. I talked to her surgeon after the operation who confirmed that it was colon cancer again but a completely different type than she had the first time. He also said they found metastic disease throughout her liver and there was nothing left to do that would prolong her quality of life. I asked how much time she had left to live and he paused, looked at me, and said maybe 6 – 9 months. He was either being overly optimistic or he found it easier to lie to me to give me hope. He said my mother was a remarkable woman having fought so valiantly against 4 unrelated cancers, hitting the 5 year “cure” rate on 2 of them. Maybe he wasn’t lying about the time she had left. Maybe he thought she would beat the odds one more time despite the grimness of the prognosis. In any event, I made plans with my mother for a trip we would take as soon as she got better. She gave me a sad smile but nodded along with all my dreams and plans.

About 6 weeks later, I received a phone message at work telling me to come quickly as my Mom only had 2 days left to live. I basically lived in the hospital room with her for the next 17 days until her body finally gave out. Her appearance was shocking as she had lost so much weight in the top half of her body that she barely resembled the woman I had seen 6 weeks prior. Her legs had become enormous from fluid build-up from her cancerous liver. I believe the cancer had spread to her brain as she became increasingly paranoid and suspicious of her food being poisoned and medical staff planning to kill her. She would have lucid moments – she planned her own funeral from her hospital bed – but near the end, she had seemingly lost all her words, communicating only in guttural sounds. The last semi-lucid conversation I had with her was that she had something important to tell me but she couldn’t do it in the hospital. She wanted me to meet her downtown. As that was impossible, I never learned what her important message to me was all about. I still wish I knew.

Although I spent 17 days bedside in the hospital, my mother clung onto life. Finally, I asked the nurses if I could leave for an hour to shower and bring new clothes. Of course, it was in that hour abscence that she finally let go of life and passed away. I saw her before anyone had time to pretty her up and she had the most incredible expression on her face. I can only describe it as a look of awe, as if she was seeing something perfect and wonderful. My mother’s final gift to me was to remove the fear of death. I have a lot of fear of the dying process but never again would I fear actual death.

It took until 2011, after an initial false negative on the first BRCA test I took, to learn that I was BRCA positive. By extension, so were my mother and my aunt. Unlike my aunt, I found my first breast lump myself and was checked out and treated immediately. Like my mother, I have had 4 primary cancers but mine have so far all been confined to the breast. My mother’s first breast cancer was at 50 while mine was at 29. She had 4 primary cancers in a 12 year period while I had 4 primary cancers in a 22 year period. 3 of my primary cancers occurred over a 7 year period.

My family was small to begin with and the BRCA1 gene cut a devastating path of destruction across my family tree. I have felt like an orphan since my mother died when I was 32. She has missed so much in the last 22 years. I have been roughed up by life quite a bit which has humbled me. I am no longer the spoiled brat only child I still was when she left me. She missed my marriage (and divorce), the adoption of my 2 wonderful children that she would have spoiled and adored, and any number of wonderful and terrible things that have happened through the years. I wonder what she would think of my double mastectomy, my 2 courses of chemotherapy, and the fact I had my ovaries removed as a preventive measure. Given her fighting spirit, I think she would have approved, despite her fears of mastectomy and chemotherapy.

There were so many times I thought that I have heard her voice in a crowd or smelled a perfume that made me think of her. It took a few years before I stopped automatically dialing her number on the phone to tell her some big news. Even 22 years later, I still miss my Mom so much it’s like a physical ache in my heart. I hope someday we will make that trip downtown together so she can finally tell me the important thing she wanted me to know.

Sharon Greene November 17, 2014

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