Wife, mom of two boys, believer in her own determination
ABOUT LISA, IN HER OWN WORDS:
- New Jersey-born and -bred.
- Cancer plays quite a mental game with the newly diagnosed. Fortunately, I had a tremendous support system from family and friends, and I started to get better at managing my emotions.
- My husband kept me upbeat and positive; to him, cancer's enemy was laughter.
This Is My Story
Think about the most important moments in your life. What immediately comes to mind? The day you learned to ride your bike? The day you found love? The day you graduated from high school? The day you met your spouse? The day you were married? Life is comprised of lots of moments. We all have those top few that pop into our heads, and some are great, while others we may wish to forget.
I would have to say that most of the moments in my life have been great. I grew up in central New Jersey, spending summer days at camp or at the shore. My dad taught me, or tried to teach me, how to change the oil in my car and a flat tire—I was not interested. I was 17, and I did not want to ruin my perfect manicure. I tried college, but it wasn't for me. I decided to attend beauty school and, you guessed it, I focused on nail art. I was good at it. I eventually found a great position at a salon in my hometown.
I was close with the owner of the salon, who mentioned to me one day that her son had a friend…my first blind date and, as it would turn out, my last. It's how I met my husband.
So many important moments have happened since that date. We eloped in Las Vegas; we welcomed our first son and then our second. I became a full-time mom and wife, and I was thrilled to have so much time with my family.
When Everything Changed
You never forget the moment you are told that you have breast cancer. I remember hearing those four words but nothing else after that. It was kind of like being in a haze. The doctor was talking to me, but all I heard was something like when the adults spoke in cartoons—"wahwahwah." It was 2006. I was 33 years old.
It all started innocently enough because of my not-a-morning-person husband who loves to stay in bed as long as possible. I don't. I tend to get up early and, in an effort to not disturb him, I would usually get ready in our son's bathroom. One day, I caught my reflection in the mirror and noticed that the underside of my breast had changed shape and appearance. It gave me pause, but I just continued to prepare for my busy day ahead. Something being wrong with me wasn't on my agenda—I still had youth on my side. I mentioned what I saw to my husband and he encouraged me to get it checked out, with the calming addendum that it was probably nothing. I wish he'd been right.
I was an active young mother, and I was happy and busy with life. I kept an eye on the shape of my breasts, but I generally ignored the situation. The shape and texture of my breasts stayed the same, not better or worse. So my worries stayed at bay too.
I went to my primary care physician, who asked me to return in about six weeks. She didn't seem too concerned. She thought the change might be due to hormonal fluctuations. I was relieved. She ordered a mammogram "just to be sure." When the mammogram results came back inconclusive, she sent me to a breast surgeon for a more comprehensive exam. Even this specialist thought things "looked okay," but while checking me, the atmosphere in the small room changed palpably. The doctor scheduled me for an immediate biopsy. Several days later, I learned the results: breast cancer.
The Road Ahead
When I think about that day so many years ago that I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I still get chills. I was determined to stay strong, but when I broke the news to my husband, I fell apart. My husband and I agreed to not tell the boys what was going on at that point. Still, it really hit me a few days later that I was a 33-year-old mother of two young children, and I had breast cancer. I was angry and frightened, and I struggled with my mortality.
That summer was spent at countless doctor appointments, getting exams, having bloodwork and scans. Sitting in the oncologist's office, listening to her explain in detail what type of tumor I had, what my treatment options were and what treatment would entail. It felt like repeated punches to my gut. How is this my life now? One minute I was happily planning family events, and now I was arranging my breast cancer treatment plan. Suddenly, terms like unilateral mastectomy, breast reconstruction, six rounds of chemotherapy, and more reconstruction became my new normal.
Cancer plays quite a mental game with the newly diagnosed. Fortunately, I had a tremendous support system from family and friends, and I started to get better at managing my emotions. I told myself that I had to do whatever it took to be here for my husband and kids. I knew that I had a rough road ahead.
Surgery went as planned, and then I started chemotherapy. I had six rounds. Some days were definitely harder than others. On those harder days, my husband would look me in the face and remind me that I had to be tough, and then he would usually make a joke that was definitely not PG rated or politically correct. Still, like he always does, he got me to laugh and I understood what he was trying to say. My husband kept me upbeat and positive; to him, cancer’s enemy was laughter.
A Devastating Return
By February 2007, I was ready to complete my breast reconstruction. My formerly bald head was now full of hair, albeit very short hair—who am I kidding, I had a crew cut, but I didn't care. I had hair and I was about to get a new set of boobs. I was so very ready to put all of this horrendous stuff behind me.
Each year that I was able to get through post-diagnosis as a healthy woman pushed all the previous years' cancer struggles further from total domination of my thoughts. Cancer became more of a passing thought, something that was, but is no more. Maybe I got a little cocky about it; maybe I just thought I’d be one of the lucky ones that did not suffer a recurrence.
But that is not how my story continues.
More than 10 years after my early breast cancer diagnosis, my oncologist called me to say that my tumor markers in my last blood draw were up, and that they had been on a steady incline over the last few months. I had a repeat blood draw, which revealed that something was amiss, that the potential for a recurrence was real. A PET scan showed some anomalies on two ribs, and fluid around one lung on the same side as my breast cancer. A thoracentesis was performed, and they also did a biopsy. I did indeed have a breast cancer recurrence. This time it was metastatic breast cancer, or mBC.
You definitely never forget the day you learn that your cancer has returned, and that this time it has spread.
I had NO idea what that meant in terms of treatment. My mind immediately flashed back to 2006 and 2007. I thought of all that I had already gone through, and how hard it had all been. I thought of my family, my husband, and children. I thought of how strong I felt and just could not process that I had cancer again. My biggest fear (besides dying) was that I'd have to go through chemo again...could I do it again? Would I be mentally prepared for it, again? So many questions of the same nature but seemingly much worse this time around. Strangely, in this case, the fear of the already known was worse than the fear of the unknown.
My husband accompanied me to the oncologist appointment. I knew I would need his strength and silly sense of humor. My doctor explained to me that my HR-positive, HER2-negative mBC treatment regimen would include letrozole and a once-daily oral treatment called IBRANCE, also known as palbociclib. She explained the benefits and risks, including the serious and common side effects.
Early on after starting IBRANCE plus letrozole, I had some pretty bad fatigue, the kind that even an afternoon nap couldn't cure. My once thick hair has thinned out a little bit since starting treatment. I also have had neutropenia, or low white blood cell counts. Everyone's experience with IBRANCE plus letrozole will be different, and it's important that you talk to your doctor about the appropriate treatment option for you. Other patients might experience serious or common side effects, including low white blood cell count, lung problems, or infections.
A New Path
I set an alert on my phone that goes off for 21 days at 6:30 p.m., and then I have seven days off treatment before the cycle begins again. This way, I am able to know exactly where I am in the cycle. It's really helpful. I get regular scans and my doctors have been happy with the results. Everyone's experience with IBRANCE will be different, and it's important that you talk to your doctor about the appropriate treatment option for you.
My current health status is mine to tell. I can choose to share my condition as I please. I see my mBC like it's a part of my life, but I try not to let it define my life. Of course, this is just my experience and everyone’s experience may differ.
I made the decision the first time around that I would focus on what is most important and not worry so much about what I cannot control. I am not saying this happened overnight, but I can say that I choose to live in each and every moment.
An mBC diagnosis sucks. I wouldn't wish it on my worst enemy. Still, the clarity it's given me and the awareness of what's truly important is a gift. There's a silver lining in everything, though, admittedly, sometimes it takes time to find. I feel that I now have the time to figure it out.
Stage IV cancer sounds really scary. It is scary and sometimes overwhelming. When it gets to be too much, I find a way to snap out of my self-induced pity party. Usually, I think of a funny memory, or one of my husband’s inappropriate jokes. I prefer to live, love, and laugh.