Am I Really a Cancer Survivor?

Call it Like it is: Maintaining the Will to Live

Musings from 21 Years of  Living with Metastatic Breast Cancer

After this blog post, I’m done answering this question: 

Are you a breast cancer survivor?  

Done.  Over.  Fini-to.

People living with metastatic cancer of any type can refer to themselves as anything they want.  Warrior?  Great.  Survivor?  Fabulous.  Thriver?  Whatever floats your boat. 

Yes, sarcasm flows in my veins but, really, I’m good with all of those descriptive terms.  Go for it — for your own purposes but not mine.

These labels help inspire people who face life-threatening diseases feel empowered, strong, hopeful.  Terrific.  I’m happy they use these terms to overcome the dark thoughts in their minds that their illnesses will likely eventually kill them. 

But not today.  Today we live.  Be positive. Be strong. “So stop being so morbid, Sandi, and just live.  Be happy.  Be grateful.”

Using labels like Survivor can matter when you discover your treatment has stopped working or the side effects of therapy are nearly impossible to endure.  “I need to get over this and go on.”

Maintaining the will to live – that’s what it’s really all about – is important for ourselves and for the sanity of our family and friends.  They don’t want us to give up and we don’t want to give up because of them.  Never.  Until we have to…and even then…we don’t want to stop trying to outlast cancer. 

I lost my will to live one day.

In early 2017, after two years of brutal chemo bouts with Ixempra followed by Halaven, I found myself spending more and more time in my recliner.  If I had to go to the bathroom, I’d wait until the last possible moment to muster up enough energy to walk 14 steps.

In between my frequent naps, I looked out the window.  I saw neighbors riding in cars, walking their dogs and gardening.   “I don’t have the energy to do ANY of that and my energy level is draining by the day.  I don’t see an end to this.”

Then we received a much-anticipated call from my son.  “The baby is here!  He was born a little while ago.”  My grandson.

And I wasn’t there.  I couldn’t be there.  Impossible.

My reaction?  I sobbed.  Ugly crying.  Unstoppable tears.

Why?

This couple went through fertility testing only to find they would not likely conceive without IVF.  During IVF, there were many ups and downs for my daughter-in-law.  So many uncertainties.  It was uncertain whether IVF would work, if the baby would survive through pregnancy, if the baby would be born with physical problems and even if the child would survive the birthing process. 

Lots of tension.  Lots of stress.

I was so relieved that my daughter in law was fine and the baby was fine.  What a blessing!

Then my thoughts went here:  “This baby will never get to know me.”

My daughter and husband were stunned by my tears, unaware of the thoughts in my head.  My daughter looked at me and said “Mom, you’re scaring me.”

I thought about what she said and what it meant.  She was afraid I was giving up.  That I would soon die because I might say “No more.”

I scared myself.  What happened to that urging inside of me that made it possible to wake up every day?  What happened to my determination to slog through my 14th line of treatment until it stopped working?

Where did my will to live go?

Packed up and gone.  I couldn’t locate it anywhere.  AWOL.

I thought how calm, peaceful and wonderful it would be to fall asleep and not wake up again.

Then I thought, “Am I really finished here?  Is this my last curtain call?”

It was at that point I called my insurance plan’s mental health helpline.

It took a few weeks to start sensing my urge to live again.  But it happened.  With therapy and medication.  Now I feel more like me.

But I don’t feel like a survivor.

My daughter in law is a survivor of IVF.  My grandson survived gestation and birth.  Both are survivors of their situations.

To me, a survivor is someone who has been able to successfully walk away from a life-threatening event and goes on with life.  Like the survivors of the Titanic.  They got in lifeboats and were eventually rescued.  Most went home.  Many returned to their old lives.  They didn’t get back on that ship except in their nightmares. 

I’m still on the Titanic.  I haven’t survived the event called “breast cancer.”  I may be currently living with breast cancer but I’m not someone who has survived.  I know my time is limited, even though I’ve beaten the odds of living past the magic five-year mark.

So, call me what you will if it makes you feel better to say it.

Tell me I’m alive because I have a positive attitude.

Tell me I’m alive because God isn’t through with me yet.

Tell me I must be doing something different to have lived this long with stage IV cancer.

But I know I’m alive because I still have the will to live.

Oh, and having a type of cancer that responds to current therapies helps a lot.  A whole lot.

Sex and the Cancer Patient

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This quality of life issue is not adequately addressed for cancer patients

Hundreds of billions of dollars have been spent researching how cancer develops, grows and spreads in the body. A fraction of that money has been spent on quality of life issues.

This is how much has been comparatively spent on figuring out how to overcome loss of sexual drive as a result of cancer treatment:

Cue Sound: Crickets Chirping

About ten years ago, I attended the San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium as a patient advocate. At the end of each day, advocates would gather with a panel of selected scientists and clinicians to discuss the highlights of the daily program and answer questions the advocates might have.

On the panel at one of the sessions was Dr. Susan Love, author of The Breast Book, esteemed UCLA breast surgeon and founder of Dr. Susan Love Research Foundation among other things. She is an amazing woman who can take complex issues and provide analogies and stories to make these issues understandable. From all of my encounters with her, I’ve found her to always be open minded and more than willing to answer tough questions.

One of the big questions on my mind that day was loss of libido that many cancer patients face after surgery, during treatment and even after treatment. This is particularly true of stage 4 cancer patients who are always on some sort of treatment. So I asked Dr. Love if she’s heard about that and what a patient might do to increase her drive.

You could see presenters and advocates squirm in their seats as I asked the question and Dr. Love even blushed a bit. She said she had known about the issue and suggested that patients do things to make them feel “in the mood,” like wearing sexy lingerie or listening to soothing music. You could hear the soft groans from the audience. This time, Dr. Love dropped the ball, so to speak.

A year or so ago, Dr. Love was diagnosed with AML, acute myelogenous leukemia and underwent bone marrow transplant. After her treatment, she gave a short talk to cancer researchers where she stated, “The only difference between a researcher and a patient is a diagnosis. We’re all patients.”

Well said.

This week, SHARE hosted a webinar featuring Dr. Love entitled “When the Doctor Becomes a Patient.” There was time at the end for Q&A. Guess what question I typed into the Q&A box?

“A few years back in San Antonio, I asked you what a patient could do to overcome loss of libido due to treatment. You answered ‘do something that gets you in the mood.’ Now that you’ve undergone cancer treatment yourself, would you reconsider your response?”

You could hear a little gasp on the line.

Dr. Love responded by saying that the libido issue is real and that it’s extremely complex; there are no real answers to how to overcome it. She publicly regretted her earlier response to my question.

I performed a silent victory fist pump.

Loss of sexual drive is a real issue for cancer patients. Consider these situations:

  • Some men undergoing life-saving prostate cancer surgery are left impotent forever
  • Mastectomies and reconstruction might leave breasts looking good most of the time, but the owner of the breasts have no sensation as the nerves are severed during surgery. Some are in constant pain from multiple surgeries.
  • Young women with hormone sensitive cancers often face permanent premature menopause from surgery, chemotherapy, and/or anti-hormonal drug treatments. They cannot take hormone replacement therapy because this could cause the cancer to come back and potentially kill them.
  • Chemotherapy kills fast growing cells, including all the linings to sexual organs. This makes intercourse painful, even dangerous should the patient contract a bacterial infection that the body can’t destroy.
  • Cancer treatment is exhausting. Just doing daily activities like showering can send one straight to the couch for a long rest.

One of the biggest issues I hear from women I mentor on the breast cancer helpline who have metastatic disease is that at the very time when they need to be closest to their life partners, their lack of desire can pull them apart. Some cancer patients even divorce during treatment. Think Newt Gingrich and John Edwards.

In a few cancer patient publications, there is a line or two about loss of sexual interest from treatment. It’s listed as a minor side effect in those brochures, but not in pamphlets provided by drug manufacturers. So this condition can come as an unpleasant surprise to cancer patients. They don’t know this is normal for most and they feel inadequate, all adding to overall stress levels.

Most oncologists don’t talk about sexual dysfunction before treatment begins and have little to say if patients bring up the subject. There aren’t any clear-cut answers.

I guess you could say that cancer patients are lucky to be alive. What more do they want? Yes, there’s the pain, the loss of appetite, the overwhelming exhaustion, stress on all bodily organs, and the anxiety of not knowing if disease will spread and kill them.

So your deal with the devil is to take treatment, hope for a cure, and face both short term and long term side effects including saying “buh-bye libido” hopefully only for the time being.