Yesterday I completed Round 5 of chemotherapy. It went well, but it was a really long day at MGH, starting with bloodwork at 9:30, meeting with the nurse practitioner to review my lab work at 10 (white blood count was good this time, but red blood count was low, leading to anemia which explains the severe exhaustion and under eye circles I had all last week!). But I got the go-ahead for chemo anyway, and that started at 11. It took about 5 and a half hours all in because with this new drug - Taxol - you have to start with some pre-infusions including saline to prep the veins, Decadron which is used to treat cancer, and Benadryl to prevent a reaction that some people have to the Taxol (red face, itchy throat, and severe lower back pain...thankfully, I didn't experience this). I did fall asleep within about 10 minutes of the Benadryl hitting my bloodstream, however, so I was out of it for the 3-hour Taxol infusion that followed. Aside from being a bit groggy when we left, it was much easier than previous treatments, without the sick hangover feeling.
With just 3 more infusions over the next 7 weeks, the end of chemo is now in sight. But I have to say, the anxiety about my treatment outcomes is growing now as well. It's easy in the beginning to sort of coast along, joining the ranks of the nearly 300K cases of breast cancer in the US this year, follow doctor's orders, and assume you'll "beat" it. It's a difficult diagnosis to swallow of course, but when you're getting treatment at one of the best facilities in the world, with tons of experience and well-established protocols, it's easy to imagine this will just but one tough year out of your life and then things will go back to normal. Until you're in the thick of it.
I'm now 3 months into this journey, and this is what I've learned so far:
- No two cases of breast cancer are alike. Women get it for different reasons, detect it at different times, get varying treatment protocols, and respond differently to them. While there's no shortage of fellow patients and survivors to talk to in person and online, and while it can be comforting to know you're not alone in this, it can be challenging - and even misleading - as well, because their experiences won't necessarily predict your own.
- Information is a double-edged sword. Some stories and data can give you hope, while others just cause unneeded stress. Earlier this week I looked up breast cancer survival rates because someone had asked and I didn't know the answer. I assumed they were high, again because it seems like so many people get this and beat it, and I was shocked at what I found: for Stage IIIB cancer, which is what I have (yes, my original Stage II diagnosis was changed after subsequent testing found a fair amount in my lymph nodes), the 5-year survival rate is only 41%. This is why I don't like to read up on the topic, people! But in all seriosness, it's important to note that the 5-year survival rate (the percenage of people who live at least 5 years beyond diagnosis) is based on people who were treated at least 5 years ago. Improvements in treatment since then can mean more favorable outcomes now, and many people live much longer than 5 years out. More importantly, these numbers don't take into account that some of the deaths are from causes other than breast cancer. That said, survival rates cannot really predict what will happen in any one person's case. It reminds me of an article someone shared early on that discusses all the numbers and choices that cancer patients need to face (and offers up a good reminder: "The 'median survival' number is not fate. It is simply a middle point. Let’s say a doctor tells you that the median survival for your type of cancer is one year. That means half of the patients lived less than 1 year. But half lived longer. Shoot to be part of the latter group."
- You really just have to take things one day at a time. I'm a planner and researcher by nature, but I've found that for my own sanity I've had to cede control on this one, trust that my treatment will work, and just tackle things one day at a time. There are no exact, prescriptive cures for this - it's a lot of trial and error, often with strange side effects and reactions that no one could predict and sometimes can't solve. So you just have to do your best and hope that it all works out in the end.
But for now I'm just looking forward to some nausea free weeks...it's nice to have my appetite back!