Discovering independence. Raising two boys. And learning to love music again.
ABOUT RUTH, IN HER OWN WORDS:
- There was no history of breast cancer in my family. Soon it became clear that my family history would not protect me.
- I was in an inverted world where everything wonderful scared me. Everything that brought me joy and love could soon be lost. And that was terrifying.
- People asked, “How are you doing this?” and “How are you doing this on your own?” I would say, “I have to.” I didn’t have a choice.
A New Chapter in My Story
Have you ever felt like things were just falling into place for you? That was how I felt in 2006. My husband and I were a little older than planned when we had our two boys—they were conceived via IVF—and then we all moved to a little suburban house outside of Chicago when my boys were 2 and 5. I was working as a teacher. We knew that good schools, friendly neighbors, and boys running in and out of the house were in our near future.
When my younger boy was 2, and I was then 41, I had not had a mammogram, so I went in for my first one—as we all do. I wasn’t very concerned. There was no history of breast cancer in my family. Soon it became clear that my family history would not protect me. The ultrasound that I went in for turned into a needle biopsy. Then I was sent home.
Two days later, I was asked to return. I was taken to a room with only a couch, a chair, a table, a box of tissues, and a phone. Nobody was in the room with me. I didn’t know what to do, so I waited. But I knew this wasn’t a room that was saying, “All clear. We just wanted to be careful.” You don’t need tissues for that. A nurse I’d met came in with a doctor [whom] I had never seen, and he used the word “tumors.” I had two small tumors in my right breast. I used some of those tissues.
I remember walking outside afterward and being surprised that in downtown Chicago people were still walking, cars were still moving, and I even heard laughter, which I couldn’t understand because inside the hospital, it felt like everything had stopped.
Turned Upside Down
For a long time after that, I could use the word “tumors” but would not use the word “cancer,” even though breast cancer was what I had. Somehow, I thought of tumors as removable or operable, but cancer was much more frightening. I don’t remember if I called anybody; I still hadn’t taken it all in at that point myself. I couldn’t fully understand what I’d been told. I shared my diagnosis with my husband and family members, and they supported me as best they could. It was heartbreaking for all of us, of course.
I remember being frightened [for] my children. They were so little, and they so needed me. Not [just] somebody, but me. I even went through this time of being unable to tolerate listening to music, which was a strange way to live as a music lover. I was in an inverted world where everything wonderful scared me. Everything that brought me joy and love could soon be lost. And that was terrifying.
A Family Regroups
I remember my surgical oncologist telling me that as far as my cancer, I was “garden variety.” Not unique. In the world of breast cancer, I was a cliché. But I was fine with that! It meant I wasn’t a groundbreaking medical case—which was easier. For once in my life, I didn’t wish to be found interesting.
I did everything I was supposed to do. I had two surgeries, six rounds of chemotherapy, and 30 rounds of radiation. I did the fundraising walks for breast cancer and earned the title of survivor.
To celebrate the end of my cancer journey, my husband, my two boys and I went to Disney World. We agreed to return in five years, another marker when I would still be alive and still cancer-free. But three years later while he was traveling out of town for work, my husband died of a heart attack.
I had actually faced my own potential death, but I hadn’t considered his. I did not know who I was, how to proceed, how to mother, how to work, or how to live. I only knew that my two boys—now ages 9 and 5—needed me to love them enough for two parents. And, somehow, we became a family of three. People asked, “How are you doing this?” and “How are you doing this on your own?” I would say, “I have to.” I didn’t have a choice.
New Events Emerge
We were somehow doing it. I could afford the mortgage, my boys were going to school, I was working, I had found a dog. We were a family. At the 10-year mark of my remission, my oncologist took me off my estrogen suppressor. There were no studies to support continuing it, so after a decade of clear diagnostic tests, it was determined that I was done. Cancer was finally behind me.
Sometime after that, my mother died. I felt untethered. I had no husband, no siblings, and now no parent. But I was physically strong and healthy. I would get through this as well. My boys still needed me.
My mother had battled uterine cancer during her life. Because of my family history and my own health journey up to that point, I went in for a full hysterectomy to try and reduce my chances of following in her footsteps. My [procedure] was complicated when my ureter was accidentally nicked. What followed was three months of poorly placed ureteral stents, catheters, and next to no medical attention in between the errors. I finally asked my primary care doctor for another urologist. I scheduled with him to have my final ureteral stent removed. After I awoke from the surgery, the urologist told me that even that stent hadn’t been put in properly but, more importantly, he was concerned about a spot he could see on my liver. I had surgery to place my ureter back into my bladder…and at the same time, a biopsy was performed on my liver. A biopsy. On my liver. I was now in complete fear of cancer again.
An Unexpected Discovery
I found out that I had metastatic breast cancer in my liver. I didn’t think yet more could be asked of me. Yet more could be taken from me. And this time, no husband and no mother. Just me to manage this family, myself, and this cancer.
I felt such a betrayal beyond the fears. I had already done breast cancer. I couldn’t have a scarier, stronger cancer than before. I just couldn’t. My surgery mishaps had led to the peripheral discovery and early detection of my breast cancer in my liver. My primary care doctor even went so far as to call me “lucky.” I think that’s taking optimism a bit far, but I get it.
Soon after my diagnosis of HR+/HER2- metastatic breast cancer, I spoke with two doctors and both recommended that I take IBRANCE, a prescription medication used to treat HR+/HER2- mBC, in combination with letrozole, which is an aromatase inhibitor. We talked about the potential benefits and common and serious side effects, and then decided IBRANCE would be a good fit for me.
I did experience side effects, including a lowered white blood cell count, or neutropenia, and I worked with my doctor to manage that. Other patients might experience other serious or common side effects, such as lung problems, fatigue, or nausea. Please know that everyone’s experience with IBRANCE in combination with letrozole will be different, and that it’s important that you talk to your doctor about the appropriate treatment option for you.
I am no longer taking IBRANCE with letrozole and am now receiving a different treatment.
Life Carries On
So, where am I today? When my boys were both entering their freshmen years of school, one in high school and one in college, I visited my younger son’s high school for freshman orientation and on the large screen in the auditorium was the year 2023. I saw parents looking at it, excited for the date that would mark their child’s graduation. All I could think was, Will I be here? Will I see that date?
The following week, all three of us went to my older son’s college. When we arrived, I was a bit more prepared for the year 2023 to appear.
I’ve only shared my mBC story with a few people personally, but they always ask, “How do you go to work every day?” and “How do you manage so much on your own?” Again, cancer didn’t ask. Cancer just showed up twice and twice now I’ve responded with living, loving, working, and pushing past the din of fear to listen to the sounds in my life now: coffee brewing, my dog barking at dogs way bigger than he is, my younger son’s voice, which is now too deep for his baby face, and of course, music.
Will I be there in 2023 at the high school and at my son’s college to see them graduate? I don’t know. But I’m trying to focus on what I can manage. I can manage loving my boys. I can manage listening to and loving music again. I can get excited about good theater tickets. I can meet people. I can hear them. I can see them. I can listen and understand them. I can care.