As many cancer survivors say, I will never forget the day I received that dreaded call. “Renee, this is Dr. N, and I am sorry to say you have breast cancer.”
I was initially diagnosed with Stage 1, Triple Negative Breast Cancer (TNBC) in 2008. Treatment took over my life for the following 7 months. After I finished chemotherapy, a lumpectomy and radiation, I thought I could put cancer behind me and move on with my life.
Life went on went on until I had to go in for routine follow-ups. These happened every 6 months, and I went on thinking all would be fine. I didn’t think the cancer would return. Unfortunately, my emotions did not prepare me. This time, the call from my doctor was even more devastating than my first diagnosis.
My doctor informed me that I now had Stage IV, Metastatic Breast Cancer. The cancer had spread to my lungs and bones. People die from Stage IV that was all I could think about. How could I, at only 32 years old be here in this moment facing a recurrence? I didn’t really hear much else in that appointment except medium survival rates of 2-3 years.
We immediately started chemotherapy to address the in my lungs and bones. Unfortunately, the first round of chemo failed, but the silver lining was that I was able to get on a trial drug plus in combination with a new chemotherapy combo. I guess you could call me one of the “Lucky Ones”, because this combination of treatment brought me to a point, where I could say I was NED (No Evidence of Disease). I celebrated by going to a fancy dinner with my husband.
Again, I thought I was back to “normal”, until one day while walking down stairs my right side of my body froze up and stopped working. A quick trip to the ER showed I had a mass in my brain about the size of a golf ball. I was in surgery less than 5 days later, to remove the mass.
After that first surgery, I felt in my heart something still wasn’t right. Everyone assured me that there was no way the tumor could be growing back, but I didn’t believe them. Two and a half months later, an MRI showed that the mass had returned in the same place. So, here I was, heading back to surgery.
After that second surgery, I felt better for about five months. One day, my side went numb again. I freaked out mentally, and thought I might be having a stroke. Once the initially shock wore off, I just knew the tumor had returned. Scans confirmed my biggest nightmare and I headed into my 3rd brain surgery in eight months. Each recurrence brought on a new set of emotions: anger, fear, joy and so much more. My family and friends have never left my side throughout all of this. This continue to provide never ending support.
Six years had passed, and I was celebrating 5 years of no cancer in my body and 3 years of no cancer in my brain. This past summer (June 2016), I was diagnosed with pre-leukemia. Pre-leukemia or MDS is a little bit of leukemia, simply put. Five percent of my white blood cells were not working to make new cells. I found the MDS through routine monthly blood work. My doctor noticed my white blood cell counts were continuously dropping, so she ordered a bone marrow biopsy. The results showed that I had Pre-Leukemia.
When I found out that the treatment for MDS would be a bone marrow transplant, I went into to “Go Mode”. I found a doctor in Dallas willing to take on my bizarre case, and I was extremely hopeful! The bone marrow transplant could potentially “cure” any and all cancer in my body or prevent any future cancer cells from forming.
The bone marrow transplant process was much more involved than I anticipated. The first step was finding a match, which can be very difficult. Luckily, the organization Be The Match found me a match quite quickly. I immediately began the process including a very harsh chemo drug followed by the stem cell transplant. It was the hardest eight weeks of my life. Each day was a roller coaster of emotions as my body fought regaining strength and adapt to the new cells and immunity.
During this stage of my treatment, my mom stayed with me in Dallas and my husband’s parents stayed at our home in Austin to help manage things there. My husband and son would come up every weekend to see me. These weekend visits really kept me going. Seeing their faces and holding my son reminded me I wasn’t just fighting for my life, but I was fighting to be my son’s mommy for a lot longer.
Since recovering from the bone marrow transplant, I have been feeling good. I try to go easy on myself when I am tired. My energy is not what is once was and I need to nap after everyday activities like laundry or going up and down stairs. I am getting better little by little and I am learning how to be patient with myself. I have learned how hard I was on myself…even during cancer.
Though I have been through a lot in the past 5 years, I want to give back and help others. I have a message to share with everyone and that is one of self-compassion and kindness. No matter what is going on in our lives, we are too hard on ourselves. We beat ourselves up and expect superhuman strength both physically and emotionally. When facing an illness, this is even harder because all we want it to feel “normal”. In order to heal and enjoy the moments we do have in live, we need to instead practice love, kindness and patience for ourselves. Treat yourself as you would a good friend.
Each month I will be sharing the stories of amazing Forever Fighters, women living with Stage IV Breast Cancer. Through their stories, we will learn more about metastatic breast cancer and what it’s like to live with the disease on a day-to-day basis. Please show Renee some love on this post and learn more on her blog Renee in Cancerland.
To learn more about Metastatic Breast cancer to help make a difference in the lives of women like Renee, please visit the non-profit Metavivor and make a donation today. http://www.metavivor.org. 100% of your donation will go directly to research!