Last week I heard my second scary word in this journey. Cancer was not one of them. I’ve had cancer before. Many members of my family had cancer. Dad had kidney cancer. Mom had breast cancer. Both uncles died of colon cancer. Three of four grandparents had cancer: skin, stomach, and leukemia. Wow. When I did one of those online genetic tests, I discovered that both sides of my family come from the same, very small part of the world. I think the gene pool is a little too small!
No, the first scary word was chemo. That word took me by surprise because I was expecting a different course of treatment, and I also think I have a primordial fear of chemo. As a middle school chemistry teacher, we investigate solubility, and one of the solvents we use is alcohol. I always slip in a little lesson about how alcohol is poisonous. As soon as we ingest alcohol, our liver says, “not again!” and tries to remove it as quickly as possible. As I was teaching that lesson this year, I realized that I am submitting to chemo, a process in which I allow strong poisons to be infused into my body. Sure, they kill cancer cells, but they also kill healthy cells. It seems like such a primitive treatment. Someday, we need to do better. Yes, “chemo” is a scary word.
A few weeks after hearing the word chemo applied to me, I heard another scary word. Even though we initially thought my lymph nodes were fine, a closer examination of the MRI revealed some suspicious areas that were later confirmed by ultrasound. I was facing the screen during the subsequent biopsy, so I got to watch. The photo shows the needle taking its sample. I read the pathology report online: “metastatic carcinoma measuring 1.4 cm.” Metastatic is not a nice word. After sitting with that shock for a while, I remembered that it makes sense. If it is breast cancer outside the breast, then, by definition, it is metastatic. Okay.
I talked with my oncologist for a long time on the phone. Is there any way to know if it has spread elsewhere in the body? There is no way to know without a full-body scan, and a scan would not be ordered unless there were symptoms elsewhere. Great. I already wonder if every weird body thing is caused by the chemo (by the way, on Day 11, I broke out in acne!), now I will wonder if every new pain or sensation is because of cancer somewhere else! I’m quickly realizing that much of this battle will be a mind game.
Then I asked, “how would the treatment be different if we knew there was cancer elsewhere?” She said that “we would pull back on the treatment.” Pull back? Why? Because we would change the approach from let’s “wipe this out for good” to “let’s manage this disease for the rest of your life.” Okay then. Carry on!