Mom of one, wife, retired banker
ABOUT RHONDA, IN HER OWN WORDS:
- Spending as much time as possible with my son is my purpose now.
- I worked in the banking industry for nine years. I loved my job!
- I retired on disability. It wasn’t an easy decision at all. All the little things I might have taken for granted before bring me such joy now.
Before I even knew what MBC was, I lived the very typical life of a working wife and mom. When I was diagnosed, life became anything but typical. I didn’t know what to do or where to turn, and all the information and statistics I found were grim and scary. I wish there had been someone to talk to who understood what I was going through; someone who could tell me that statistics don’t tell the whole story.
After graduating college, I ended up working for one of the largest banks in the United States, underwriting commercial loans and lines of credit. I loved my job.
I’d always planned on getting married and having kids early, but life didn’t quite work out that way. When I met my husband, the biological clock was ticking: I probably started talking about having kids on our third or fourth date! After a whirlwind courtship, we got engaged in May 2010 and married a year later. One year after that we were blessed with our son Luke. Being a wife and mom while working full-time was all I had time for!
My Initial Diagnosis
I was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 2013. When Luke was 15 months old, I noticed a dark, bloody discharge from my right nipple. A couple of weeks later, I discovered a lump in my right breast.
I had a biopsy and was told it would be a couple days before we’d get the results. My doctor called with the news: I had breast cancer. I was devastated. Part of me had always expected I’d get breast cancer because so many women in my family had it but I never dreamed it would happen so young.
Later I learned my specific diagnosis was Stage II, HR+, HER2-. Even with my family history, I really had no idea what any of that meant. When the oncologist and I talked about my treatment plan he said if I had a double mastectomy, four rounds of chemotherapy, and 35 radiation treatments followed by a daily therapy to block estrogen, I’d have a very low chance of recurrence. That sounded good to me—and another oncologist I was seeing concurred with this plan. So I followed his advice.
After the double mastectomy I couldn’t pick up my son for eight weeks, which was heartbreaking—but my amazing husband stepped up. Once I completed radiation, we thought our dance with cancer was over and we returned to our daily lives. I continued seeing my oncologist every six months.
Finding Out I Have MBC
On a typical evening in June 2015, our family of three went to sleep. During the middle of the night, Luke accidentally rolled off his bed onto the floor. I sat bolt upright in bed when I heard him crying. Immediately, my back started throbbing with pain. We got our son settled and back to sleep, but I could not sit, lie down, or stand without intense back pain.
The next morning the pain was still there, so I called my oncologist, who referred me to my primary care physician. Ten days of muscle relaxers did nothing to reduce the back pain, so I had an X-ray and was referred to an orthopedic specialist. He reviewed my X-ray and medical history, but assured me it wasn’t my cancer—I sobbed tears of relief!
However, the six days of steroids he prescribed still didn’t completely eliminate the pain; instead, the pain gradually worsened. About two weeks later, I got up in the morning to go to the bathroom; I made it about three steps before collapsing to the floor in pain. My husband said, “I am NOT leaving you like this.”
After nine hours on the floor with no improvement, an ambulance transported me to the hospital. Up until then, I was convinced it was a pulled muscle or pinched nerve. But within hours of my arrival, an MRI of my lower back and pelvis revealed that my cancer had in fact returned, and was present in my spine and my pelvis. Further scans revealed that the cancer had spread to my liver as well. The excruciating pain was due to a collapsed vertebra in my lower back. A procedure called a kyphoplasty was done to strengthen the vertebrae. They also obtained a biopsy of the cancer in my vertebrae, which confirmed my diagnosis of metastatic breast cancer.
Hearing my cancer had returned was a complete shock—especially after being assured my chances of recurrence were so low, and that the pain in my back was not my cancer returning. I received a tremendous outpouring of love and support from our family and friends. But I also had a new sense of fear, sadness, and confusion—I knew nothing about metastatic breast cancer, and the quick searches I did online terrified me. And I was angry, too—the thought of my child growing up without me just didn’t seem fair. It took time to get past that anger, and what helped me was finding online support groups and meeting women with the same metastatic breast cancer as me. Reading and hearing their stories and seeing how they were fighting both the cancer and the grim statistics gave me the encouragement I needed.
Treating With IBRANCE
Something else that encouraged me was working with an oncologist. The day after I came home from the hospital, I met with my oncologist. She walked me through a potential treatment plan, which included a treatment called IBRANCE taken along with letrozole. My oncologist explained that IBRANCE was a first-line oral treatment taken in combination with letrozole, which is an aromatase inhibitor, for postmenopausal women with HR+/HER2- metastatic breast cancer. She explained the possible benefits and common and serious side effects of IBRANCE. She told me I’d take IBRANCE with letrozole every day for 21 days, and then for the following seven days, I would continue to take letrozole but not IBRANCE.
My doctor and I were pleased with my results. As my oncologist and nurses had warned me, I did have some side effects with IBRANCE including low white blood cell counts, along with some hair thinning, fatigue, constipation, hot flashes at night, some fever, and mouth sores. Other patients might experience other serious side effects, including infections or nausea. I stopped taking IBRANCE with letrozole in January 2017.
I was so thankful for Pfizer’s Co-Pay One Savings Program, which is for those who are commercially insured. There was no income criteria and the program is a lot more accessible than I realized; however, there are terms and conditions associated with the program. So I signed up and got my Pfizer Co-Pay card, and that was it! It helped me by reducing my out-of-pocket costs so I could focus on my health and family and not my finances! I love that, but keep in mind this was just my experience, and every case is unique.
A New Outlook
I retired on disability. It wasn’t an easy decision at all. My job gave me a sense of purpose, and I’m still adjusting. Spending as much time as possible with my son is my purpose now. And while my life isn’t predictable or typical, I do feel that I’m in a good place. All the little things I might have taken for granted before bring me such joy now.
I have attended weekend breast cancer conferences, and as I look to the future of research and medicine, I’m optimistic that new medicines will come along to give us the chance to add time to those old, grim statistics. I plan to do everything I can to be as proactive in my treatment as I can. I hope to be around for Luke for as long as possible. There are so many resources out there to help us along the way. So do your research and talk to your doctors about all the options available, and just enjoy every moment with the people you love.