Metastatic Breast Cancer Makes Mother’s Day Difficult

I just finished reading “The Day I Started Lying to Ruth: A Cancer Doctor on Losing His Wife to Cancer.”   The author, Peter Bach, is a physician, epidemiologist and writer at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center where he is Director of the Center for Health Policy and Outcome. He is a gifted communicator and this is a compelling–if sad and sobering–essay.



I was shocked and dismayed to learn that Dr. Bach’s wife, Ruth, died in January 2012 from metastatic breast cancer. She was 46.

I recalled the Bachs from a 2011 series of blog posts in the New York Times. The seven-part series started with “When the Doctor’s Wife Has Cancer” in February 2011 and concluded with April 2011’s “Back to Work and Life With a Fresh Perpective.”  In the April 2011 installment, all seemed well–Ruth’s hair had grown back following the conclusion of her chemo. The piece ends with the couple enjoying a gorgeous day at the beach with their son, a happy ending to what had been a frightening chapter in their lives.

So how could this woman possibly have died a mere nine months later?  Bach did not assign a time frame to his New York Times 2011 series–as many readers probably did, I assumed Bach was writing about events in real time, but that wasn’t the case. In his most recent article, we learn that Ruth was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 2008.  So the New York Time series actually described events from three years prior.

Still, even with this timeline clarification, the news is no less incomprehensible. In June 2011, just a few a months after the publication of the NYT series–and three years from her first diagnosis–the Bachs learned Ruth had a metastatic recurrence. She died eight months later in January 2012.

Bach’s thoughtful NYT series included this March 2011 reflection on the risk of breast cancer recurrence. A mere three months after that story was printed, he and Ruth learned her cancer was back (after three years), and this time it was incurable.

How awful for all concerned.

When I read Dr. Bach’s account of his wife’s experience with metastatic breast cancer, I felt a familiar blend of emotions: sympathy for Bach and his young son, anger that yet another young life was lost  and despair that even people as smart and well-connected as the Bachs were powerless against this insidious disease.

Mother’s Day is this Sunday, May 11, 2014. It will be hard day for the Bach family as well as the families of  some of their fellow Memorial Sloan-Kettering patients who lost  young mothers to metastatic breast cancer, including two who shared their diagnosis online and in print:

Meredith Israel, mother of a five-year-old died on December 23, 2012 at age 39.

Elisa Bond, also 39,  died on March 26. 2014, a few weeks prior to her daughter’s fourth birthday.

The following women were not MSKC patients and not all of them were mothers. But  they were all too young:

Lisa Lynch was 33.

Olga Simkin was 34.

Maria Madden was 37.

Jennifer Lynne Strutzel Berg was 37.

Susan Niebur was 39.

Beth Bell was 40.

Samantha Pritchett was 40.

Dana Robinson was 41.

Rachel Cheetham Moro was 42.

Zoh Vivian Murphy was 45.

Barbra Watson-Riley was 45.

Acacia Warwick was 46

Suzanne Hebert was 47.

Mary J. Corey was 49.

Shelli Gibbons was 49

Martha Rall was 49.


“We need focused research to change incurable metastatic breast cancer into a treatable, chronic condition like HIV-AIDS–where patients can now live for 20-30 years with treatment after their diagnosis,” says Shirley Mertz, President of MBCN. “If gay men, who were then scorned by society in the 1980s, could demand and receive focused research and treatments for their disease, why can’t we women–who are wives, mothers, daughters, sisters and grandmothers AND over half of the population–receive similar research that will find strategies to keep us alive for 20-30 years?

“Are we not worthy of this effort?  Are we ignored because we quietly live with our disease?”

Well, are we?



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10 thoughts on “Metastatic Breast Cancer Makes Mother’s Day Difficult

  1. Linda says:


    Katherine, what specific organization focuses on funding/fundraising metastatic breast cancer research? The review I’ve done shown that most focus on awareness. I’m aware. I want my efforts going directly to funding research.

  2. I had a similar reaction when I read Dr. Bach’s article. It’s so devastating to read about another woman lost to metastatic breast cancer.

    I honestly feel, as a woman living with metastatic breast cancer, that we are ignored because the general feeling is that we must have done something to sabotage our recovery in some way. We didn’t exercise enough, we didn’t eat enough of the right foods, we didn’t get enough sleep.

    There is so much focus still on breast cancer screening, checking our breast for lumps. There isn’t a woman on the planet that doesn’t know the importance of all of that. The focus needs to change to research and finding ways to become smarter than the cancer. For those of us that will or did get breast cancer there will always be the threat of metastatic breast cancer or like me finding out at diagnosis that it’s metastatic breast cancer.

    Until there is a way to prevent breast cancer altogether there needs to be an urgency and larger focus on research relevant to metastatic breast cancer and it needs to be now.

  3. I read Bach’s essay last night and cannot get it out of my head. I didn’t connect him to the “When the Doctor’s Wife Has Cancer” series, which I read last year. What a crushing story. Yet all too familiar.

  4. Katherine,

    I read Dr. Bach’s article and debated whether to post it on Facebook. It was well written and compelling, but, especially in light of Mother’s Day I wanted to run from its stark and sad reality.

    We cannot do this, of course, as you eloquently point out. I think the awareness of how mbc differs from early stage is building and i am hopeful that the recently formed Metastatic Breast Cancer Alliance of over 20 bc orgs, research foundations and pharmaceuticals will propel the discussion and the research funding forward with the sense of urgency we have been longing to bring to the table.

    Thank you for writing this strong and powerful post.

  5. MBCNbuzz says:

    Reblogged this on MBCNbuzz and commented:
    Please read and share Katherine O’Brien’s powerful reflection on Dr Peter Bach’s article in New York Magazine about his wife dying of metastatic breast cancer.

  6. Christine Benjamin says:

    There is nothing like starting the day with a good cry and flashbacks of the story of my grandmother dying of metastatic breast cancer, leaving my Dad and his two younger sisters to live for a decade in an NYC orphanage. Or visiting my aunt days before she passed and taking my young cousin to the Thanksgiving Day Parade to distract him from the inevitability of losing his mother. And finally, watching my 40 something year old cousin die within a year of giving birth to her third boy. Metastatic breast (and ovarian) cancer have been a part of my family for generations and for the last 80 + years, there has sadly been no difference in outcomes. There has been a difference however in “awareness” and talking about the disease, how it differs from early stage breast cancer and it’s brutality.

    Growing up, I was told my grandmother died in her 30’s of an unspecified cause. Then I was told she died of “women’s cancer”. We were more informed and a bit more open about my aunt’s metastatic breast cancer and I for one was highly informed (after my own early stage diagnosis) about my cousin’s metastatic disease and it was this time that the conversation began to change.

    Now, there are blogs and books and articles and organizations devoted to metastatic breast cancer and more conversation than ever before. Although there is more “awareness” change and progress is slow. I truly believe in the mission of the Metastatic Breast Cancer Alliance and work daily to educate, inform, support and empower women (and men) living with metastatic breast cancer. Each day I am inspired and devastated all at the same time and these emotions propel me forward.

    I remember the impact the first time I heard Shirley Mertz, President of the Metastatic Breast Cancer Network speak about how gay men changed the course of living with HIV and felt something similar reading her statement above: “Are we not worthy of this effort? Are we ignored because we quietly live with our disease?” “Well, are we?”

    As Marilyn Monroe once said, “Well Behaved Women Rarely Make History.” Is it time to make history?

  7. OyiaBrown says:

    Reblogged this on Oyia Brown.

  8. […] Katherine shares The Day I Started Lying to Ruth: A Cancer Doctor on Losing His Wife to Cancer, a compelling essay by Peter Bach, a physician at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, as she reflects on how cancer has stolen too many of our wonderful mothers. […]

  9. Awareness is great, but a cure would be awesome. I am worthy of a cure. Thank you.

  10. methenandnow says:

    I hate this article. I don’t want to be lied to. And i imagine his wife knew but because he lied she had nobody to talk to. She just got sit there and be freaked out alone.

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