Tag Archives: Elizabeth Edwards

Still In Search of the Next Metastatic Breast Cancer Celebrity Spokesperson…

As I read Angelina Jolie’s New York Times article, I thought, “Wow, a celebrity spokesperson for hereditary breast and ovarian cancer! That will really focus some attention on this issue!” And then I compared Jolie’s statements to those of other celebrities who have shared their own experiences with metastatic breast cancer.
This didn’t take very long because there aren’t any.

Edwards made her metastatic announcement in 2007.

Elizabeth Edwards is probably the closest we’ve come to having a high-profile spokesperson –certainly she is the only one I can think of since my own metastatic diagnosis in 2009. I wouldn’t care to be a celebrity let alone an ill celebrity in the national spotlight. I can’t comment on Edwards’ personal or political life. But I am so grateful that she talked about having metastatic breast cancer. I hope Cate Edwards and her siblings know what that meant to others living with the disease.

I remember coming across an article CNN’s Shahreen Abedin wrote in 2007. It was called “Surgeon Offers Answers on Metastatic Breast Cancer.” It was straightforward and, because Edwards had bone mets like me, I learned a lot about my specific metastatic issue.

CNN: What are survival rates for Stage IV metastatic breast cancer?

Dr. Rache Simmons: It depends on where the cancer is located. Patients can do very well for years if it’s isolated just to the bone. If there is a speck on the lungs or other organ that turns out to be cancer, that could mean a much worse prognosis, a much shorter life expectancy.

The bone is often the first place to spread to with breast cancer. Most breast cancer systemic recurrences (meaning the kinds that spread to the rest of the body) happen in the next two years after the first time the cancer is diagnosed. The next plateau is within five years. After that, it’s very rare to have recurrences. However, recurrences do still happen, even as late as 10 years later. But that’s very unusual.

For patients with small cancers and negative lymph nodes with no evidence of disease spread at the time of diagnosis, still about five to 10 percent of women end up developing metastatic disease.

If the recurrence happens later in the five-year period after diagnosis, rather than earlier, that’s a good sign; the patient will probably have a better response to the treatments. If the recurrence happens very soon after diagnosis, like six months, a year, or 18 months, then patients tend to do worse.

CNN: What would the standard treatment be once recurrence is diagnosed?

Simmons: Probably hormonal therapy. Mainly anti-estrogen types of treatments — like Tamoxifen or aromatase inhibitors. Sometimes chemo is an option, either in addition to or instead of hormone therapy.

Sometimes radiation therapy to localized area, especially if the patient is in pain.

To find it accidentally, when the person is having no pain, is a very lucky thing. Usually what happens is a patient develops a pain and then gets X-rays — and then they find it. [The Q&A continues here.]

The article gave me a lot of  hope when I really needed it.

I will never forget the day in 2009 when I found out I was of one of 155,000 US people living with metastatic breast cancer. The oncologist said my breast cancer had spread to my lumbar vertebrae:  “Hopefully the disease will remain under control for a long time although an ultimate cure is probably unattainable.”

Most people with metastatic breast cancer have previously been treated for early stage breast cancer. Not me–I was Stage IV from my initial diagnosis, something that happens to between 6% and 10% of those living with MBC.

My cancer center’s library had two shelves of breast cancer pamphlets, mostly for women with early stage disease. One had chapters such as “Why You Should Get Prompt Attention,” and “Not All Lumps Are Cancer.”

Not very helpful to my particular situation.

Prior to my metastatic diagnosis, when it was thought I probably had Stage III breast cancer, my would-be surgeon gave me an 85-page booklet called “Breast Cancer: Treatment Guidelines for Patients.”

I am a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of Illinois. I would rank “Breast Cancer: Treatment Guidelines for Patients” somewhere between “Beowulf” and James Joyce’s “Ulysses” in the annals of Massively Complex and Confusing Literature. Beyond the dense text, it also had flow charts seemingly inspired by a Chinese menu: Pick One From Each Column: Type, Tumor Size, HER2 and Receptor Status, etc.

Eventually, I came across “Diagnosis: Metastatic Breast Cancer…What Does It Mean For You?”

This slim MBCN brochure promised “up-to-date facts — demonstrating that today, more women and men with metastatic breast cancer are living longer, productive lives.”

The brochure featured 15 questions and answers about metastatic breast cancer. Question No. 1 was: “Am I going to die?”

This was certainly a top-of-mind question for me.

“Though you may be concerned by statistics you have heard, keep in mind that every individual is unique,” advised the MBCN brochure. “Because statistics are based on the general population, they do not reflect the experience of any one individual. Each person brings to the table a unique set of characteristics that influence her or his experience with breast cancer. In addition, no really accurate statistics predicting survival for metastatic breast cancer patients are available today.”

Those few sentences gave me a lot of hope.

“There is something in our national psyche that makes the diagnosis of cancer in a celebrity something more important,” noted ACS’ Dr. Len Lichtenfeld in 2008 following Christina Applegates’s revelation she’d had a BMX. ” They rise above the rest of us when sadness impacts their lives, and for many of us their disease becomes our disease…”

I hope Angela Jolie’s article will help someone else wrestling with hereditary breast and/or ovarian cancer issues.

In one intervew Edwards touched on what she termed “the competing responsibilities” of being in in the public eye with metastatic breast cancer:  “One [responsibility] is to say to people with breast cancer, ‘This is really hard what you’re going through. Believe me, it’s hard for everybody. … This is perfectly normal to feel exhausted or perfectly normal to feel irritated sometimes, and don’t think less of yourself because those are your feelings.’ On the other hand, we don’t want to be treated as if we’re invalids. So when I’m feeling lousy, I don’t feel like I have the same permission to share that, but I do want people to take care of us — to take care of my sisters, in a sense.”

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Why Are You Doing This?

My mom had inflammatory breast cancer. She died in 1983.

The other night I participated in a free WEGO Health webinar: “Navigating Your Health Narrative.” Lisa Emrich, (MS and RA); and Jenni Prokopy, fibromyalgia; and WEGO’s Amanda Dolan offered tips for better health blogging. One basic question any health blogger should ask is “Why am I doing this?”

To paraphrase George Mallory: Because I am here.

Recently a schoolmate posted our first grade class portrait on Facebook. As I studied the faces, distant memories drifted back: Tom’s theft of my Husky red pencil; Scott’s thwarted attempt to cheat on a test and Fred’s pre-luncheon ritual of sitting on his daily baloney sandwich prior to unwrapping it.

What would they remember about me? Probably that I seldom spoke. I was very shy, a situation compounded by being one of three children born in the same year. (I have a twin brother and one who is not quite a year older.)

I used to have a defaced picture of The Haymarket Riot from my sister’s history book. Her friend replaced “Haymarket Riot” with “The O’Brien Family at Dinner Time.” It wasn’t far off the mark. Dinners at our house were raucous gatherings, with everyone competing for their share of attention and food. (Not necessarily in that order.)

Since two of my five brothers were in my class, I had no school news to impart–they always beat me to it. Most of the time I just enjoyed listening to everyone else. I was in awe of my older brothers and my sister. They were bigger, smarter and burdened with the task of setting good examples.

As a World War II and Korean vet, my father was old school all the way. In the early 1970s, hippies were still commonplace. So we heard a lot of anti-mope rants. (“Mope,” “dolt” and “chowderhead” formed my father’s great triumvirate of insults.)

Occasionally, my father would solicit my opinion. Inevitably, my twin, Kevin, would respond for me. “Do you mind?” my father would say, shushing him and signaling for general silence. “I am attempting to talk to your sister. Now, what do you have to say, Kathy?”

I was embarrassed to be singled out. I spoke softly and briefly. At school this often prompted the teacher to say: “Class, could anyone hear that? I didn’t think so. Now let’s hear that again, Kathy, and this time speak up.”

I was quiet like my mother but certainly not as self-effacing. If I was modest it was only because I was too timid to toot my own horn. In spirit, if not in deed, I was like my father–a bit of an intellectual show-off.

“It amused her that our ways were quite opposite,” my father wrote shortly after my mother died. “When I did [something] it would be followed by a detailed commentary on the difficulties of the task and the discomforts I had endured and the magnitude of what I had accomplished and its lasting value.”

If my father painted the back door he would tell my mother it would probably cause an immediate rise in neighborhood property values and make the door itself a place of pilgrimage for connoisseurs of well-painted doors who would come from afar to admire the genius of its brushwork.

“At such times the fond patient eye would fall upon me with a satirical look,” my father recalled. “Puffing out her cheeks to simulate the contours of the Irish face as it pleased her to display them, she would frown importantly and march up and down pointing to herself. My venture into pomposity and egotism would end, like so many of its predecessors, in delighted laughter.”

My mother was diagnosed with inflammatory breast cancer (IBC) in 1981. IBC accounts for between 1 to 5 percent of all U.S. breast cancer cases–NIH classifies it as a rare disease. Although some small progress has been made since my mother died almost 30 years ago, it remains the most aggressive type of breast cancer.

It is estimated that between 1% and 5% of all newly diagnosed breast cancers each year present as IBC; because of its rarity, it is listed with the Office of Rare Diseases at the National Institutes of Health.[1] While the number of cases of IBC is relatively small compared with the overall number of breast cancers, it is still a substantial number compared with many other rare tumor types…We cannot use the small number of cases as an excuse for the lack of clinical trials; rather, we should view it as a mandate for making novel treatment strategies available to all patients with this diagnosis.

via Have We Made Progress in Inflammatory Breast Cancer? Not So Fast – Cancer Network.

IBC patients’ median ages range between 45 and 55 years old. It occurs more frequently and at a younger age in African Americans vs. Caucasians. (See Inflammatory Breast Cancer Foundation – What is IBC? as well as IBC Support.)

I was 15 when my mother was diagnosed with IBC. Unlike other breast cancers, IBC typically does not present with a lump. The breast often looks swollen or red, a change that sometimes can happen overnight.

My mother’s treatment began with a mastectomy in our community hospital. In hindsight, I don’t know why my mother didn’t go to a university hospital–I can’t believe her small town surgeon would have seen many cases of IBC or even garden variety breast cancer for that matter. My parents went to the Mayo Clinic for a consultation. No one in our family had cancer. We didn’t know anyone with cancer. If you had a serious health crisis, everyone knew the Mayo Clinic was THE place to go.

But even the Mayo Brothers were no match for a disease where the five-year median survival rate is approximately 40 percent today. (It was worse in the 1980s. Today, IBC has a three-year survival rate of 42 % vs. 85% for non-IBC disease.)

Although 3-year survival from IBC has improved from 32% in 1975-1979 to 42% in 1988-1992 from the use of combined treatment modalities, women with IBC still have far worse survival than those with other types of breast cancer (all stages and non-IBC histopathological types combined [had a] 3-year survival [of] 85% in 1988-1992)
Source: http://www.ibcresearch.org/research/

From the community hospital, my mother went on to Lake Forest Hospital for in-patient chemotherapy. My older siblings were away at college leaving only my father two brothers and me to visit my mother in Lake Forest and remark on the amenities offered in a rich person’s hospital. (Mothers recuperating from blessed events could order lobster and there was a grand piano by the flight of stairs that led to the maternity ward.)

I hated going to visit my mother there. The nurse’s station had stern notices warning visitors against sitting on vacant beds. As we walked down the hall we would sometimes hear retching or terrible groans emanating from other patients’ rooms.

Our travels also took us to Lutheran General and Northwestern. I can’t remember where my mom had radiation–maybe at Lutheran General. There was a nurse she really liked at Northwestern–a very friendly young woman.

My father went to some of my mom’s appointments, especially if she were trying something new or meeting a new doctor. But most of the time my mother, who didn’t drive, asked which ever child was with her to remain in the waiting room while she saw the doctor.

My family in August, 1975. Nulliparity obviously wasn't a problem.

Oncology regimens have improved dramatically since the early 1980s. In my recollection, my mom’s treatments were on par with Civil War battlefield amputations. I think she had a radical mastectomy–which is no longer done. Today’s anti-emetics didn’t exist–my mom would throw up for days when she was having chemo. Later, when she had radiation, her skin was broken and oozing and her back–either because it was burned or itching or both–was a constant torment.

When I went for radiation treatments last year, I was terrified. I remembered my mother’s agony, how she would beg us to rub her back and how we did it so often for so long that we eventually rubbed a huge hole in the old navy blue cardigan she used to wear.

Thankfully, I suffered no side effects from surgery, radiation or other treatment. (I don’t have IBC, I have run-of-the-mill ER/PR+ HER2 NEU- breast cancer with a low volume of bone mets.)

In those pre-Internet days, there was literally nothing for women with IBC or MBC. General breast cancer information was restricted to large libraries or a few pamphlets from the cancer circuit rider AKA an American Cancer Society volunteer.

“In the mid-1970s, breast cancer was perceived very differently than it is today,” writes Barron H. Lerner. “There was no National Breast Cancer Coalition or Race for the Cure that encouraged women to talk about, and raise funds to control, the disease. Indeed, it was only in 1974 that breast cancer came out of the closet, with the highly public diagnoses of First Lady Betty Ford and Happy Rockefeller, wife of vice-president-designate Nelson Rockefeller. “

In the early 1980s, breast cancer was not daytime television fodder. “Mastectomy” was not a topic Merv Griffin, Mike Douglas, Phil Donahue or Judge Wapner broached. But in the early 1980s, it seems we had a perfect storm of launch vehicles for breast cancer awareness: Susan G. Komen for the Cure was founded (1982); Lifetime TV went on the air (also in 1982); and Oprah made her nationwide debut (1986).

You know what need now? How a little less awareness and a whole lot more UNDERSTANDING? Most breast cancer stories in print and on television make Horatio Alger Jr. sound as subtle as James Joyce. With luck and pluck, the brave breast cancer heroine carries on and ultimately kicks cancer to the curb.

Those are good stories. But that’s not my story.

Last November, I attended a panel discussion called “Many Faces of Breast Cancer: Living with Advanced Breast Cancer,” one of a series of national events AstraZeneca sponsored.

Dr. Sandy Goldberg, a nutritionist and weekend health contributor to NBC Channel 5, moderated the discussion. She told us she had experienced “everything you saw on the tape” referring to an AstraZeneca video featuring three women with metastatic breast cancer.

This set off enraged whispers in my row. Dr. Goldberg seemingly had an early stage cancer discovered in 2000. She did a 14-part, local-Emmy winning series on her breast cancer in 2002. But she apparently does not have metastatic breast cancer. It’s not clear what treatment she had, but at any rate it would seem her treatment ended at least six years ago. In 2002 she launched the Silver Lining Foundation to provide resources to those uninsured and underinsured individuals, often women of color.

According to the foundation’s 990 form, Dr. Goldberg receives a salary of $73,750 or 27% of the net revenues; $96,000 or 36% is spent on mammograms. The rest is spent on other administrative costs like rent, professional fees, salaries and benefits for those other than Dr. Goldberg.

The next day, we saw a student journalist’s online report. “The attendees wore mostly pink,” according to the student. “Some stuck to understated pink handbags or pink ribbons pinned to their lapels, while others celebrated in head-to-toe pink ensembles. They swapped stories, hugs and tears until the expert panel took the stage for the evening’s conversation.”

I spoke to six MBC women before the event began. We were all wearing earth tones: brown, black and perhaps olive green. None of us had any pink accessories. No pink ribbon pins. No one in my group hugged or cried and I observed no such carrying on as I looked around the room. I did see one elderly lady wearing a track suit which may have had pink stripes.

We are women with an incurable disease. Nothing said at this meeting offered any great epiphany. Maybe people were excited about the free food, but I found nothing to celebrate and there were certainly no high fives or fist bumps being exchanged in my corner.

Why would the student write something if it wasn’t true? She probably did see a couple of friends hugging. But, perhaps more likely, people have an idea of what breast cancer and breast cancer patients should be. They don’t like to let reality get in the way of a warm and fuzzy story.

We thought the presentation was going to focus on MBC. It didn’t. We complained to the organizers in person and later in writing. We felt brushed off.

Last October, my local paper featured a breast cancer awareness advertising section. All of the women profiled belonged to the “Treat it and Beat it” sorority beloved of reporters writing about breast cancer.

There was not a single word about recurrence. And yet, until a woman dies
of something else, there is always the possibility her cancer can come back, even if she was successfully treated for an early stage cancer and even if she completed her treatment as long as 25 years ago.

The special section had no insights for MBC women. The only oblique mention of Stage IV concerned a golf tournament named after a woman who died. Beyond the time, place and funds raised, we learned nothing further.

The day after Elizabeth Edwards died, “Today” show host Matt Lauer and Dr. Nancy Snyderman, NBC chief medical editor, recapped Edward’s cancer experience. Noting that Edwards was diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer in 2004, Lauer asked Snyderman about Stage 3 survival rates.

At no time, during their discussion, did Lauer or Snyderman mention that Edwards entered the metastatic ranks in 2007 and, in fact, died from metastatic breast cancer, AKA Stage IV.

Snyderman made it sound as though Edwards somehow died of Stage 3 breast cancer.

As if to avoid alarming Stage 3 women, Snyderman warned them not to compare their situations to Edwards’. She offered no such comfort to Stage IV women.

As the interview concluded, the doctor stressed the importance of mammograms and early detection. She said that the real issue is that we are still trying to figure out what causes breast cancer.

No kidding.

As we’ve previously observed, women with MBC literally don’t count. Some estimate that there are 160,000 people living with MBC in the U.S. The reality is we don’t actually know how many of us are out there.

“One hundred and sixty thousand is an estimate only,” author and advocate Musa Mayer told Elaine Schattner last year. “Nothing more definitive is available,” she said, explaining that because the NCI and SEER database record only incidence, initial treatment and mortality data, what happens in between — in terms of recurrence and the exact number of women living with metastatic breast cancer — is undocumented.

“It is as if these metastatic women are invisible, that they literally don’t count,” she indicated. “And when we don’t count people’s needs, we can’t provide or plan for them.”

Why I am doing this? Because I refuse to be invisible.

I will be seen and heard.

I will speak up and speak out.

I will make a difference.

Two of my nieces with their grandmother's high school self portrait.

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Make Them Hear You: Voices of Metastatic Breast Cancer

National MBC Awareness Day is  Oct. 13: http://goo.gl/pkLBc

Last weekend, the Metastatic Breast Cancer Network (MBCN) launched an e-newsletter called “Voices.”

The name reminded me of a video MBC and LBBC  helped with last year: “Faces of Metastatic Breast Cancer.” 

The low-key video shows a variety of women doing every day things with their families and commenting on MBC. It’s not a public service awareness message–it’s not preachy. Some people are serious, but many are laughing, playing with their kids and so on. It’s well worth a look!

Here are some other women who have inspired me:

Molly Ivins: 

“Having breast cancer is massive amounts of no fun. First they mutilate you;
then they poison you; then they burn you. I have been on blind dates better
than that.”
–Molly Ivins 1944 – 2007, columnist, political commentator and humorist

Oni Faida Lampley:

“I woke yearning to see the faces of black women who’d survived cancer…I

went to the library and saw Celebrating Life by Sylvia Dunnavant sticking

out on the shelf. Inside were images of black survivors. Their stories
filled my spiritual arsenal.”

Oni Faida Lampley 1959-2008, playwright and actress

RivkA Matitya:

Blogger RivkA Matitya died of MBC last year at 44. The NY native immigrated to Israel 21 years ago. She was diagnosed with DCIS in 2005. Two years later her cancer metastasized. From New York to Jerusalem and all points in between RivkA With a Capital “A” touched people around the world. A thousand people attended her funeral.

“The first time I signed my name RivkA, it was a typo,” RivkA wrote in an early entry. “I liked the symmetry of the two capital letters at the beginning and end of my name. More importantly, it seemed like the perfect solution for signing my name the way I pronounce it.”

She always signed her posts “with love and optimism.”

Daria Maluta: 

Canadian blogger Daria Maluta (1961-2011) also touched people around the
world. She was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 39. In 2004 she
had a recurrence in her chest area and four years later at 47 she was
diagnosed with Stage IV breast cancer.
Daria was a breast cancer advocate–she acted as a CBCN media spokesperson
and participated in many media interviews about metastatic breast cancer and
MBC Awareness Day.

This is Daria’s to do list from her blog:

Things to do today:

1. get up

2. survive

3. go back to bed

Randi Rosenberg:

“Good days are when I cross a lot of stuff off my to-do list, and I roll
around with my 3-year-old and play music and giggle and have tickle fights.”
–Randi Rosenberg, co-founder of the Young Survival Coalition, 1966-2010

Dr. Jerri Nielsen Fitzgerald:

“I am just now wrapping my brain around the fact that I have metastasis and
I look at my life in a different way and I think that’s what we all do
through out life.”

–Dr. Jerri Nielsen FitzGerald 1957-2009

,

Elizabeth Edwards:

“[Your family] feel[s] they want to take care of you and they feel a certain
amount of hopelessness, because there’s obviously not a whole lot they can
do that would change your outcome. And if you really express to them how
frightened you are or how depressed you are, for them that’s fairly
depressing news, because they can’t do anything about it; it’s outside their
control. And I hate that.”

–Elizabeth Edwards, 1949-2010
 


Kay Yow:

“This is completely different from being in stage I. There is no comparison.
The chemo treatments are powerful [and] strong. I have a lot of side issues.
My life is really changed. You do what you have to do. You don’t just slip
away. You don’t know how much life is ahead for you. Obviously, none of us
knows that, but it becomes really clear when you are in a situation like I
am. Don’t put life on hold. Go on and live. There are a lot of things I
still want do.”
–Kay Yow 1942-2009, NC State basketball coach

Lynn Redgrave:

“I have my moments of such sadness. They hit me quite suddenly. My loss of
innocence. The innocence that made me feel that cancer couldn’t happen to
me.”
–Lynn Redgrave 1943-2010


Lori Baur:

“Breast cancer awareness is great, and raising money is great. But the most important thing is we need a cure.

I would trade this day to not have cancer or have ever had it or to ever hear about it again.”

Lori Baur, 1970-2011


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