Stage4Lifer: Navigating Life After Hearing “You Have Metastatic Breast Cancer”
For #Stage4Lifer, Hear My Voice Volunteer Katy McRae reflects on her journey from diagnosis with metastatic breast cancer to the present.
It happened on a normal afternoon in mid-August 2009, when I got a call at work from my oncologist's office. The call was to inform me that my blood results from a regular check-up were suspicious and might indicate a return of the breast cancer that had plagued me 4 1/2 years earlier. I groped for a chair while trying to assimilate what the person on the other end of the phone told me. I tried to suppress the sensation of dread that overpowered my body.
I listened in disbelief but understood what I had to do. I had my orders: undergo a PET scan to establish if I had had a recurrence. Within a few days I had a call from my oncologist to confirm that I had, indeed, metastatic breast cancer (MBC) in my bones.
My immediate reaction was one of power, "OK, how do I cure this? What do we need to do? Should I have a bone marrow transplant?" My doctor repeated on three occasions, while I babbled on, that MBC is an incurable disease.
I was completed horrified and deflated and realized with mounting dread that my life from this moment would never again be the same. Deep in my being I realized that this was always a possibility (About 20% to 30% of people first diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer will develop metastatic disease) but I made a conscious decision after my primary cancer treatment not to dwell on that fact.
I am a pro-active person so the idea of not being able to “cure/fight” this disease was harrowing to contemplate. I felt isolated in my misery and it wasn’t until I talked with an LBBC Breast Cancer Helpline Volunteer that I saw a glimmer of hope for my future. I realized that, even though I would never again be cancer-free, I might be able to have some time to still enjoy life.
Through the 2016 Hear My Voice: Metastatic Breast Cancer Outreach Volunteer Program, I have met some powerful women (and one man) who suffer from MBC and they are truly inspiring to the newly-diagnosed.
Over the course of the following months I tried to reconcile my idea of what life had been to how it was going to be, and knew that for me to be happy I had to rely solely on my own resources. This was something that only I could do. The best medical care was available to me and that was a first and crucial fact that was apparent – my body would be taken care of; my spirit would be mine to manage.
Being diagnosed with MBC is like being thrown overseas to a country whose language you do not speak.I quickly learned that for my survival and some sense of ownership of my own body I would need to educate myself in the language and science of this hostile place. I relied, of course, on my oncologist’s advice but I also did my own research.
I had originally been ER/PR-positive when diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer in 2005 but I did not respond well to the aromatase inhibitor treatment that I was on in the beginning of my treatment with MBC. I chose to have a bone biopsy and learned that I was in fact HER2-positive – a curse and a blessing. A curse because it is a very aggressive cancer and a blessing because in recent years, there has been much progress in developing great targeted therapies that are quite successful in slowing the progression of this type of cancer.
I developed a strategy over time that has worked well for me. I can say that I am truly happy and enjoying life. I changed how I look at life. I don't do the "what if, why me?" thing. It is what it is; the world owes me nothing and thinking that it does creates only self-pity and negativity, so I don't go there. I have learned to actively change my train of thought when the dream of a cancer-free existence floats into my brain. The big picture has been replaced by being in, and relishing, the present moment.
I have been to my children's weddings and multiple graduations. I have enjoyed since my diagnosis seven Christmases, birthdays, hundreds of beautiful walks, visits to see my family and friends, and all the wonderful events that are a part of everyday life. At some point in the acceptance of my new reality I sensed that cancer now lives with ME, whereas, in the early days, I lived with IT.
I feel truly blessed to have had the gift of the last few years. I am beyond the “average” survival time for MBC and feel that I am exactly where I am supposed to be, that I am somehow “connected”. Life is good!!!
You heard Katy's voice. Raise yours! Join the #Stage4Lifer campaign.
Katy McRae has lived and worked in many countries, including Ireland, England, Saudi Arabia, Germany and the United States. She and her husband Steve began their last relocation 8 years ago, when they came from Germany to live in Frederick, Maryland. Her favorite things to do are hosting her kids (anytime, anywhere), crafting (especially knitting and felting), being outside (walking or cycling), reading, traveling, raising awareness and funding for MBC, and debating (“Anyone, any time, over anything - I’m Irish!” Katy says.)