By Raquel Wernicke, for LBBC
On January 25, 2007, at age 37, I was diagnosed with stage IIIA breast cancer. There was no history of the disease in my family and I never imagined I would have to fight this battle.
This was a time when I should have been focusing on potty training my 2-year-old and helping my 8-year-old with her Girl Scout troop. Instead, my family and I were thrust into a whole new world of doctor appointments, tests, scans and doctor speak: estrogen-positive, progesterone-positive, HER2-negative, 6 of 19 lymph nodes positive, persistent invasive lobular carcinoma 7 cm tumor, lobular carcinoma in situ 1 m, and so on.
With two young daughters to care for, my husband and I had only one focus: to do everything we could to fight the cancer. That year was a blur filled with 6 different surgeries, 8 rounds of chemo and 34 rounds of radiation, all by September 2007. I finally felt as if I won the fight when my doctors let me know I showed “no evidence of disease.” I immersed myself in life, working, spending time with family and simply living.
I continued having scans every 6 months, getting comfortable with the idea that NED would be with me forever. Just 1 week shy of my 5-year cancer-free anniversary, in September of 2012, my doctor shared that the cancer had progressed to stage IV and was now in my bones.
“You have stage IV metastatic breast cancer”: Words can’t truly describe how this diagnosis changed me, my family and our focus. I no longer framed my situation as a fight. Instead, my stage IV diagnosis was a call to refocus on how I was going to live. It was about laughing and loving with all that I have today because today I am living with cancer. Life is full of moments, both good and bad. For me, choosing how I focus on any of those moments, and feeling hopeful while I move forward in my life, is empowering.
What is different for my family and me now is that with my stage IV diagnosis we are better informed and fully aware of what we have in front of us. In April 2013, we attended the LBBC Annual Conference for Women Living with Metastatic Breast Cancer in Philadelphia, where I gained access to medical and quality-of-life information to help me live well. On the opening day of the conference, I was able to see all the women in attendance living well with metastatic breast cancer, 5, 10, 15 and even 20 years out. I knew then that I could live with this disease and focus my life on helping others do the same.
Today, my cancer is “stable.” I have tumors in my bones that are not growing or advancing. My new normal is having treatment every month to keep the cancer from spreading and scans every 3 months to check for any new disease. I live with the fact that I have cancer — it does not have me. I work full time in a job that I love, I travel often and I have the opportunity to volunteer with many different organizations, such as Little Pink Houses of Hope, Susan G. Komen, and the Girls Scouts.
Working and volunteering allow me to give back and feel fulfilled. I am truly proud of my role as a Girl Scout leader. It gives me the opportunity to spend time with my youngest daughter while helping to build character, confidence and leadership in the girls in our troop. My perspective is that it’s important to keep moving forward, living, laughing and loving. Spend time doing things that make you happy and know that one person can make a difference.
I am intentional in thinking about my future. I think about my daughters — their graduations, their marriages and even one day when I get to meet my grandchildren. I still dream about growing old with my husband and renewing our wedding vows on our 25th wedding anniversary in 2014. I look forward to traveling and helping others who may struggle to maintain hope while living with a disease for which there is not yet a cure.
I don’t consider myself a “survivor” or a “fighter.” Instead, I am someone who has a strong faith and who keeps moving forward no matter what comes my way, as I live, work and volunteer with metastatic breast cancer.
The views expressed in this newsletter are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Living Beyond Breast Cancer.