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Stage IV Breast Cancer & The Will to Survive

My lower back has been in excruciating pain since Thursday, and I can’t get in to see “Dr. Magic Hands” until Monday afternoon. I hesitate to even mention this because many metastatic cancer patients endure far more than I am. In comparison, my back is not even a blip on their pendulum of physical and emotional pain.

I think about friends, like Donna Peach, who are enduring unimaginable pain and suffering due to Stage IV metastatic breast cancer treatments, and I wonder how they do it? Their will to live must be far greater than mine. Perhaps if James were still alive or if I had children, I would do anything to be with them, but James isn’t here, and I don’t have children, so I’m left wondering… What would I do in their position? Would I keep fighting and taking treatments that don’t give me a good quality of life?

I’d already begun writing this blog when I read “Your Silence Will Not Save You” by Katie Ford Hall at UneasyPink. She writes that when someone dies, we rarely know whether it was the cancer that killed them or the complications from treatment. She thinks it’s in everyone’s best interest to know how effective Stage IV treatments are, plus we should know more about the risks. I second that.

In 1987 my first husband, Philip, died from complications of an experimental Stage IV Lung cancer treatment. Even though it was administered daily, on an outpatient basis at the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Maryland, no one verbally told us what to expect. I’m certain complications were mentioned in the fine print on the treatment release forms Philip signed, but no one suggested any downside to treatment other than it might not work. Since it was experimental, I have to wonder whether his doctors even knew the risks? Of course none of that consoled me as I watched Philip die in the back of an ambulance after treatment.

At the suggestion of a mutual friend, I recently spent the afternoon with Alana Stewart, actress, Emmy-nominated producer and best friend extraordinaire to Farrah Fawcett. Alana’s book touched me deeply as she described nearly three years of accompanying Farrah to Germany for what would be numerous painful chemo embolizations, laser and ultrasound surgeries, radiation and blood clots, interspersed with marathon sessions of projectile vomiting. Soldiering on with an unflinching will, Farrah was courageous and hopeful, nearly to the end.

Perhaps I know too much about the odds of beating cancer to do what Farrah did; to be hopeful that I’d be the one in a zillion, megaball, Stage IV lottery winner who’s cured of their cancer. The will to do whatever it takes to survive and protect ourselves and our family is the strongest will there is, and yet, I’m not sure I would endure what many Stage IV cancer patients go through. It would be my fervent hope that a compassionate oncologist would tell me all the facts surrounding my options and quality of life. From what I know, palliative care may be the most loving and humane course of action, and in many cases, can prolong life better than experimental treatments.

If I’m faced with metastatic breast cancer, I know I will be hopeful about some things: that the lives of those I love will be blessed, and that Dr. Susan Love and her Army of Women will find the cause of breast cancer and develop a way to prevent it. We all desperately want a cure, but wouldn’t it be better not to worry about getting breast cancer in the first place? For me, that’s the ultimate survival.