After much planning, and arrangements that included my mother-in-law and several other great friends, Branden and I spent the week in Houston, at MD Anderson, trying to figure out the best plan for me in fighting my cancer recurrence. We met with a doctor who was recommended to us by multiple people, and I feel like he lived up to his reputation.
When I first found that the cancer had returned I went to my old oncologist, Dr. Buys, at Huntsman Cancer Institute in Salt Lake. She really is wonderful, and has been an incredible partner in battling my cancer thus far. I don’t think I would have had two fabulous years in remission without her wise advice and genuine concern for me. But when we spoke with Dr. Buys, she didn’t suggest what we were expecting.
Let me briefly explain metastatic breast cancer. It started in my breast originally, but because it travelled to my bones, that means it has gotten into my bone marrow and found a good landing place in my bones where it grew. At first the cancer was in my spine and pelvis. After all the treatment I received three years ago, we no longer saw evidence of cancer in my body, but doctors mostly agreed that it would pop up somewhere again. We were hopeful that they were wrong, but knew it was unlikely.
Now, eradicating my one visible tumor with radiation should not be a problem. The problem is that now we know the cancer is still circulating in my bone marrow, blood stream, etc., and will land and make more tumors if we don’t treat it systemically (which means my whole body, not just the one spot). That was why we assumed that Dr. Buys would recommend chemotherapy again, but this time she did not think that was the best idea.
According to her, the chances are “miniscule” that I will completely eradicate the cancer, and my best bet right now is to try an approach with less side-effects than chemo so that I can continue to feel well. My type of cancer is stimulated by estrogen, and so trying a new estrogen blocker is one method of holding back the cancer for a while. Many women with metastatic breast cancer switch from one estrogen blocker to the next over time. One drug will work for some time, and when that stops working, sometimes another one will work. This method can go on for many years if you are fortunate, treating the cancer as sort of “chronic” rather than “terminal”.
I have read a lot over the past three years, and I know that this is the recommended treatment plan for someone in my position, but it has been hard to wrap my head around that. I asked Dr. Buys for her suggestion on a more aggressive treatment plan, such as chemo, and she said she would really try to talk me out of it. “Why would you want to do that to yourself?” were her exact words. I respect her opinion very much, but left her office feeling a bit disappointed. We decided to go to MD Anderson in Houston to get a second opinion.
It was a few weeks before I was able to get the appointment with Dr. Valero, but I felt the wait was worth it. I had some time to think about what Dr. Buys said in the weeks leading up to my appointment with Dr. Valero, and felt that if he suggested the same type of treatment as Dr. Buys suggested, I should listen. When he read my medical history and came to speak with me he started off by basically giving me a much needed pep talk.
Dr. Valero stated confidently, “You can live with breast cancer.” He let that sink in for a minute and then said, “You have lived with breast cancer for a long time now.” Just as I was thinking that three years wasn’t really that long, he said, “You had it many years before you were diagnosed, or it wouldn’t have been at the stage it was when it was discovered.” Then he asked me if I had any pain. When I said no, he said, “See?! You wouldn’t even know you had cancer now if we did not see it on your scan. You can run, you can take care of your children, and you can have an active lifestyle with cancer. So, . . . what we need to do, is keep you feeling well for a long time, and give you a drug that will stop or slow the growth of the cancer.”
He then told me that we are at a good place. My cancer is not causing me any problems, and we have several “tools in the toolbox” right now because I have not had many different drugs yet. After discussing some of the hormone blockers on the market right now, he recommended that I try to get into a trial of a new type of drug called a CDK inhibitor. It does not just block estrogen, but actually destroys estrogen receptors. It has had some amazingly effective results in early phases of experimentation. It is usually used in combination with an estrogen blocker, and so it can be a strong line of defense. Some early results are showing a much longer duration of time before it stops being effective than just the estrogen blockers alone. He said, more than once, that if he were in my situation, he would try to get that drug. The CDK inhibitor was something that Dr. Buys had suggested, but when she couldn’t find an open trial right away, she just moved along to the idea of an estrogen blocker alone. But basically they both were suggesting the same thing.
I trusted Dr. Valero’s advice, but could not leave without asking, “So, do we not ever try for a cure then at this point?”
Dr. Valero quickly raised his finger and said, “I did not say that!” Then he said, “If we have good success for a long time with this approach, and we see that tumor shrink, and no new tumors appear, then maybe we will zap it with radiation and hope to get rid of it completely at that point.” I liked his answer, even if he was possibly patronizing me a bit. It has taken me a long time to come to an acceptance of a treatment plan that is not with the intent to cure me, but I can accept this approach much easier if I am still allowed to hope for a cure at some point, . . . and I do.
After several phone calls, I am now likely able to get into a trial at Huntsman Cancer Institute of the CDK inhibitor, plus two other estrogen blockers with it, starting in September. I feel so good about this plan, and that was what I was praying for; something that felt right.
“Living with cancer” is something I have done for a long time, and I can continue to do it for a long time if necessary. And if “living with cancer” is necessary, you can bet that I will live the heck out of my life! I will be the healthiest person you know with cancer, and I will plan on setting some sort of record for the person who has lived the longest with metastatic breast cancer! And really, I will just do my best to live with whatever comes my way, which is all that any of us can do anyway.
Thank you for those of you who helped with our kids while we were gone this week, and for all of you who have sent encouraging messages or who have prayed for us. I am grateful for so many truly wonderful people in my life, for feeling well, for a husband who loves me enough to take me all over for the best treatment, for my sweet kiddos, and for a relationship with my Heavenly Father. I am blessed.