Doctors called Katherine Russell Rich an outlier. People with metastatic breast cancer called her a hero.
Rich died April 3, 2012 at age 56. She lived with breast cancer for 23 years; and for 18 of those years she had metastatic breast cancer.
“When you’re diagnosed with stage IV breast cancer, the average life expectancy is two and a half years,” Jonathan Menjiver said during a January 2011 “This American Life” interview. “You meet women who have lived 5 or 10, but beyond that [according to Rich], there’s a tiny sub-category that lives 20 or 30 years. Just 2% of all cases.”
Rich, wrote two books: “The Red Devil: To Hell With Cancer and Back” (1999); and “Dreaming in Hindi: Coming Awake in Another Langauge” (2010). Her byline appeared in the New York Times, the Sunday Times Magazine, the Washington Post, Slate, and O, the Oprah Magazine. She received a New York Foundation for the Arts Award, and fellowships at the New York Public Library’s Center for Scholars and Writer, MacDowell and Yaddo. She taught in the MFA program at Lesley University (Cambridge, MA).
Rich was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 1988 at age 32. Five years later, she apparently learned she had metastatic breast cancer.
Her treatments, according to Publishers Weekly, included a lumpectomy, radiation, several protocols of chemotherapy and hormones, a bone marrow transplant and alternative healing techniques. (Bone marrow transplants and stem cell transplants were common in the 1980s and 1990s . This treatment is no longer administered, because clinical trials showed such transplants were no better than less toxic treatments.)
In 1992 she lost her job at GQ, and it was a year before she got another full-time job, as an editor at Allure magazine. Shortly after she started at that magazine, a routine CAT scan showed tumors in her spine.
“She endured back braces, paralysis and drugs that made her sick and caused her weight to balloon,” according to a People magazine article promoting Rich’s first book. “In December 1993 two vertebrae snapped when she bent down to pick up an envelope…Doctors told her that her only hope was a bone-marrow transplant. She began another round of chemotherapy to prepare for the transplant, which was performed in the fall of 1995.
“Though she was despondent, Rich fought on. ‘She was a young woman who never said, Why me?’ says her oncologist, George Raptis… ‘I felt belligerent about cancer,’ Rich told People. ‘You took everything, but you’re not taking my ability to enjoy life.'”
How did Rich live with mets for an amazing 18 years?
We don’t know.
“For all the pink-ribbon hoopla, despite the hundreds of millions that have been poured into breast cancer research, hardly anyone has looked into the why of longdistance survival; not one doctor has specialized in this field,” Russell explained in a 201o New York Times article.
According to Rich, the Two Percenters typically have estrogen-positive disease that has spread to the bone (vs. lung, liver or elsewhere) and do well on antihormonals. She added: “But as Dr. Gabriel N. Hortobagyi at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston told me, you can also find women whose breast cancer spread to organs other than bone, for whom [anti]hormone therapy did exactly nothing, who had their lesions surgically excised and who have been free of cancer for 30 years. None of these women could have expected to live. You just don’t know, and neither, unfortunately, does the medical field.”
Rich refused to be defined by her disease. When she felt an ominous buzz in her bones or just plain uncertain, she would ask herself, “How am I right now?”
“And each time, the answer is, “Fine. Stay right here, in this day, stay right here in your mind.” That’s one of the things I say to counsel myself. Also, “Leave room for the God factor—no one can say, with ultimate truth, what will happen.”
And: “When you’re afraid to move forward, ask yourself what’s the worst that can happen.” One night, on chemo, I was comparing notes on the phone with a friend, another cancer patient, who said, “When you’re fighting the insurance companies, don’t you ever think, ‘What are they going to do, kill me?'” It is, I’ve decided, an exemplary motto.”
Dr. Raptis often brought med students to meet Rich. “He has me talk to them about going to India, about living my life,” Rich told Margaret Jaworski. “I was really grateful to him and to anyone who didn’t talk to me as if I was only a cancer patient,” she says, “because all cancer patients are other things too. They are full human beings.”