You Publish – We Perish

Stop the Madness

Sometimes I wonder whether the purpose of some cancer research is to beef up biosketches of investigators while contributing to the growth of the medical publishing industry.

Other times I am sure of it.

As a seasoned advocate reviewer for three different breast cancer funding organizations, I’m asked to review the overall impact I believe an application may have on achieving the goal of the particular funding program.  I assess this representing the breast cancer community in total, not my particular medical situation. 

As I read each proposal, I seek answers to questions like these: “So what if this is study funded?  What eventual difference might the research findings make in the lives of patients?”  Sometimes the answers are difficult to find in basic science proposals, but it’s not impossible. 

Each applicant writes what they believe the impact of their study will be if funded and if their hypothesis is correct.  The idea is to make a difference by moving the science ahead in order to one day reduce incidence, improve quality or quantity of live, and/or prevent deaths.  Each program announcement is very clear about the objectives of this section of the application. 

One investigator, who I will call Dr. Nyt (Naïve Yet Truthful), enthusiastically stated in his Impact Statement that if funded, his research would generate two, maybe three manuscripts which would impact his career prospects, and would also put him in a position to get additional funding so he could publish additional studies.

That was the essence of his idea about the overall impact of his work.  That he would publish more articles and further his career.

There is a lot of truth to Dr. Nyt’s comments. 

It’s what many may think, but never write.

If you don’t publish, you don’t keep your job, no less move up.  You don’t Pass Go.  Ever.

Another part of peer review for some funding programs for less experienced scientists, is to review the potential of each applicant to become an independent breast cancer researcher.  During peer review discussion, much energy is put toward questions like these:

For someone at that level, does the fact that they only have four published articles give them a lower rating? 

What if the applicant was first author on all four publications? 

What if the applicant has never been first author, but has been co-author of ten published articles? 

What if the ten articles were published in “low quality” journals?

What if the applicant has only published two articles and is working to get approval on five more? Does that mean they aren’t very productive? 

Little is said about the quality of the contributions the articles may have to scientific progress and how these published articles may eventually influence clinical practice.

The reward system favoring publishing over impact is fraught with long term issues, issues that may have decelerated progress. Focusing on publishable studies may have delayed the groundwork needed to develop new therapies that could extend lives, improve the quality of lives or reduce deaths from breast cancer. The extreme emphasis on publishing may also have discouraged many promising investigators from pursuing a career in the field.

Scientists know this.  In academic settings they play the game because they have to.  It’s the old “publish or perish” — you’re only as good as your last published article, only if it’s accepted by a high-quality journal.  And publishing in any journal is better than not publishing at all.

Over the past six weeks, eight fabulous breast cancer advocates – my friends – have died of metastatic breast cancer.

How many new journals have gone to print over those six weeks?

How many articles have been published? 

How many of those are the career-sustaining articles that will likely go nowhere, except for citations in the next round of articles? 

How many of them end with “in order to know for sure, we need more studies?” 

I fully realize I’m an outsider making observations based on what I see and what I learn about.  In school, I didn’t excel in biology and couldn’t stand following the scientific method.  I’m no expert.

Alone, I have very little power to change anything.  That frustrates me.  People are dying.

Many advocates believe that if we just spent a lot more money on research, we would be closer to ending the death spiral in metastatic breast cancer.  Maybe we could. I’m certainly not against more funding.

But I’m not convinced that by only increasing funding for breast cancer research, we will achieve better outcomes for patients.

There’s more to it than that.

Until we fully examine and change the reward systems for scientists, it will be more difficult to achieve the progress we all want in order to stop our friends and family from dying. 

Let’s stop the madness.

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.

Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell

Let’s Take Metastatic Breast Cancer Out of the Closet

Early Detection Saves Lives.

Get Your Mammogram Now.

Look Out for Lumps and Bumps.

These are the breast cancer awareness messages that have bombarded us with pretty pink images of women with smiling faces. “I had my mammogram. I’m good for a year now.”

Sometimes our best attempts at building awareness result in unintended consequences.  Serious consequences.

Those sending out the awareness messages are well meaning. They love it when someone tells them:  “I saw your piece about breast cancer and I got a mammogram right away. They found my tumor early. Now I’m cured.  Thank you.”  I wish we could, in all honesty, say that the patient has indeed been cured.  But we aren’t there yet.

Nice message, but incomplete.

Why is it that we want to catch breast cancers early? Some say it’s because if we catch it when it’s small, it won’t come back.

I have three things to say about that:

  1. Come back where? The focus is on recurrence in the breast, either the same breast or the other breast. But breast cancer that stays in the breast doesn’t kill you. If it just hangs out in your breast, even if it’s growing, it’s more like an annoying mole versus a melanoma. Yes, it’s frightening if it returns to the breast but it’s exceedingly unlikely that it will kill you if it stays there.
  2. Small tumor size doesn’t mean it’s not aggressive. There is evidence that even stage 0 breast cancer, also called DCIS or LCIS, may shed cancer cells that circulate in the blood or lymph system until they find a place to hide out- like in your bone marrow. They can sleep there for weeks, months, years, decades. Then one day, they might wake up and…
  3. Screening Isn’t Always the Answer.  There’s a lot of press about dense breasts, younger people not having effective screening options, and unreported or uncommunicated potential tumors seen on images. We need a better, more accurate screening process. Why has this taken so long to achieve?

What is the public being told about signs and symptoms of breast cancer?

The focus is on the breast itself and related lymph nodes. Do you see lumps or bumps? Any nipple discharge? Swollen areas in the armpits?  Unusual color, heat or emerging dimples on the surface of the breast?

There are a slew of disturbing messages out there too: “Save the ta-ta’s.” Or a man at a breast cancer fundraiser wearing a t-shirt that says, “I Do Free Breast Examinations.” Or special days promoted on social media posts that may be intended to raise awareness by going braless. Funny stuff, right? But you know it’s crap. Just plain crap that doesn’t help anyone.

To most of us living with metastatic breast cancer, these “humorous” messages are extremely offensive.  We are struggling to survive.  And that’s not very funny,

What information does the public (or at least early stage breast cancer patients) get about metastatic breast cancer (MBC)?

Nothing. Or practically nothing.

We receive a lot of information about recovery from breast surgery and treatment side effects. But nothing or nothing memorable about metastatic breast cancer. “Don’t worry about recurrence,” some doctors tell us. “We got all the tumor and we will cure you.”

A good portion of the general public as well as many early stage breast cancer patients have no idea that breast cancer can set up shop in other parts of the body. They don’t know that this kind of invasion is what kills you.  When they hear that a breast cancer patient has cancer in the liver, they think the person has liver cancer, not breast cancer that has spread.  These are not the same conditions and are treated differently.

Cancer confined to the breast does not kill, but it greatly upset us and our loved ones.*

*  There are examples of rare cases where people have died from breast cancer that hasn’t metastasized.  For example, if your breast cancer becomes infected, you could die from the infection.  Or you could die from the side effects of treatment that is overly toxic for your body.  These types of situations account for only a handful of the over 40,000 annual deaths due to breast cancer in the US.  It’s still too many.

Consider what three women now living with metastatic breast cancer have to say:

I was diagnosed metastatic three months after my original diagnosis of bilateral breast cancer (cancer in both breasts). I’d never heard the word ‘metastatic’ before. I was always confused as to the how’s and why’s of some people surviving it and others dying of it. (Tania Saunders-Lelisi)

I was told I was “cured” by several doctors after my early stage cancer. I was also told that there was a remote chance of a local recurrence, so I opted for a double mastectomy. MBC was not mentioned. (RA)

When I had early stage breast cancer, metastasis was never explained to me. I didn’t know it could come back after a double mastectomy, complete hysterectomy and chemo. In 2009, I was told I was cancer -free. I would have wanted to know more so that maybe I could have spoken up during the 4 months it took to finally get my MBC diagnosis in 2016. (Linda Mantke-Dolezan)

So What?

The truth is, not everyone who gets breast cancer will develop metastasis. However, as it stands now, upwards of 20% of stage 0-3 breast cancer patients will be diagnosed with MBC in the future – weeks, months, years or decades later. Then there is the roughly 10% of patients who are diagnosed with MBC right from the start — without having an early stage cancer in the breast detected first.

Scientists have some idea of which breast cancers are more likely to metastasize, but it isn’t 100% or even close.

What to Do as Patients

We need to learn the signs of MBC and insist on being taken seriously if we experience these symptoms. Consider this comment from someone living with MBC:

I wish I would have known the signs of MBC. Then I would have known what my bone pain was. Breast cancer to my bone was misdiagnosed for too long. It was already in my liver by the time I was diagnosed with stage IV breast cancer.

Ignorance is not bliss.

Knowledge is power.

In order to face our fears of dying from this disease, we need to have some control, like knowing what we should look for. Hip or stomach pain could be something that goes away in a few days. The same with shortness of breath. But if symptoms like these last for awhile, like two or more weeks, you need to see a doctor. We must insist.

How Medical Professionals Can Help

Don’t patronize us. We know you want to believe you can cure us and send us on our merry way so we can live our lives as best we can.

You need to educate us, even though the risk of MBC may be low.

Some early stage breast cancer patients have a greater risk of dying from breast cancer than some long-term smokers have of dying of lung cancer.  But we inform smokers of the signs and symptoms of lung cancer.  Not so for early stage breast cancer patients.  Think about that.

When we “graduate” from early stage treatment, give us information – written information – with pictures and facts – about signs and symptoms of MBC.

Don’t dismiss us when we report suspicious symptoms.

Yes, we know we are all getting older, and some of the symptoms may be confused with aging. But please humor us. Ask detailed questions. Order scans when you can’t be certain.  Do the job you were trained to do.

Just because you haven’t seen a specific symptom that turns out to be stage IV cancer, doesn’t mean it can’t happen.

What You Can Do Now

Insist that any messaging about screening and early detection includes at least a reference to the signs and symptoms of MBC.

Write to the companies behind those messages. Thank them for their work, but let them know their messages are incomplete.

We need to provide complete and compelling messages.

We can’t continue to tolerate sugar-coated images or slogans. We need meat and potatoes.  (Sorry for using that analogy, vegans.)  Let’s try this again:  We need broccoli and lentils.

Educate others you know about the signs and symptoms of MBC, particularly those who have been diagnosed with stage 0-3 breast cancer. 

Sometimes even those living with MBC aren’t aware of the signs and symptoms of cancer that advances to additional sites. 

Here are some great references to help educate ourselves and others:

Cancer.net

National Breast Cancer Foundation

Susan G. Komen

American Cancer Society

These aren’t perfect but they represent the best we have right now.

There are other sites as well, but some are not easily found on internet searches. Most of the references resulting in a search of “symptoms of metastatic breast cancer” take you directly to a specific drug company and their well-publicized treatment for some type of MBC (yes, there are subtypes of MBC). 

Try it.  Search for “symptoms of metastatic breast cancer.”  Click on the first few items that are listed.

If you know of other sites that contain useful information on this topic, please post them in the comments section below.

In The Future

I hope that someday, this post will be sorely outdated. Readers will think “What the heck is this lady talking about?” That day can’t come soon enough.

At First

notebook writing pencil start
Photo by Dom J on Pexels.com

SHARE published a poem I wrote during the San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium (SABCS) this month.  I attended an evening workshop along with a handful of other Patient Advocates attending SABCS where we learned about how to write interesting pieces for publication. Eli Lilly and Company sponsored this event.

After a seven-minute writing exercise, we were asked to read what we wrote about living with metastatic breast cancer (MBC).  This is what I wrote:

At First

Cry. Stomp your feet. Curse God. Feel sorry for yourself.

Mourn the future life you won’t have.

Go to sleep. Wake up. Greet the day.

Think about what will make you happy for the next 5 minutes. Do that.

Think about who you love and why you love them.

Prepare yourself to give the news, but only to those who won’t stomp on your soul.

Think about how you want to live your new life story. What do you want? What don’t you want? How much do you want to know what’s lays behind the medical curtain?

Plan your questions for your doctor. Don’t sit there and be dumb. Ask. Ask. Ask, until you understand, even if your doctor rolls her eyes.

Come up with a plan. Sleep on it.

The next day, pretend you made a different decision. Live with that.

Then on the third day, decide what you want to do and go for it.

And remember, by all means, do no max out your credit cards. You may live long enough to have to pay it all back.

These thoughts are based on general advice I’ve given over the phone to many frightened women who were recently diagnosed with MBC.  These callers connected with me through the helplines of After Breast Cancer Diagnosis, Living Beyond Breast Cancer, or SHARE.

An Open Letter to Breast Cancer Researchers: Are You Building Stairways to Nowhere?

Are You Building Stairways to Nowhere?

Are You Building Stairways to Nowhere?

Dear Scientific Researcher,

What you do is extremely important and provides hope to those like me living with metastatic breast cancer.  The projects you choose, and the collaborations and advances you make, can be vital to ending the set of diseases known as breast cancer, thereby saving thousands of lives in the future.

I have met many of you on various review panels and have sat in the room with you, discussing the strengths and weaknesses of proposed breast cancer studies.  You bring in scientific viewpoints; I bring in the views of the community, particularly the views of the patient advocate.  Sometimes you get wrapped up in the elegance of a specific study and shift uneasily in your seats when I ask:  “So how does this study help us save lives or prevent the disease from happening in the first place?”

I realize how difficult it is to obtain funding for your labs and that some of you have had to dismiss some talented members of your teams due to lack of funding.  I have raised over $50,000 for breast cancer research and have lobbied dozens of times on Capitol Hill to secure your research dollars.   I feel your pain.

I have attended far too many funerals cloaked in pink ribbons.  Inspiring women, creative women, and yes, demanding women and men have suffered and died at the hands of this disease.  Each day, those who call themselves survivors, live with dark clouds over their heads housing thunderbolts of lingering fears that recurrence and death is in the forecast.

When I read funding proposals, it makes me aware how little you really know about curing breast cancer in humans.  You don’t know how many breast cancers start, how to accurately detect breast cancers, why mutations happen, why the immune system ignores these aberrant cells, how cancer cells can survive throughout the body and colonize in new locations, or how some cancer cells resist treatment.  Sure, you know some, but not enough.

We have spent billions of dollars on breast cancer research, from both the public and private sectors.  You have written thousands of peer-reviewed journal articles on the subject.  You have attended and presented at hundreds of breast cancer symposia, costing millions of dollars and thousands of hours.

Securing study funding, publishing papers and presenting findings seems to have become an end unto itself for some of you.  Finding real cures for real people appears to have been lost in the shuffle.

You study signaling pathways that end up worthless as targets for treatments due to the body’s ability to create redundant systems.  You study different dose levels of the same thirty-year-old chemotherapy treatments on lab mice and proudly boast that the new combination extends life a few months.  You repeat unsuccessful research studies because prior scientists failed to produce their findings.  You plunge into nanoparticle technology to find the right shape to fit into cell receptors in order to develop a toxic payload into cancer cells, and discover the keys can’t find the locks.  You study the neighborhood around cancer and try to figure out if that’s what fosters new cancer formation.  You spend years discovering new cellular mechanisms, write about them, and then look for your next project.

All of this:  Yet people keep dying.  At least one has died from breast cancer as you read this letter.

But are you building stairways to nowhere?

What happens after you publish your findings?  When you finish a project what happens next?  How are your results applied to get us any closer to actual treatments or prevention?  How do you hold yourselves accountable to clinicians, patients and the general public?  How can you make it less about “publish or perish” and more about saving lives?  How can you make sure you ask the right questions before starting any new project instead of building a stairway leading to nowhere?

Are you satisfied with your own progress?  How would you feel if someone undergoing treatment looks over your shoulder as you work?  Would you personally go to your friends and family, asking them to donate to the work you are doing right now?  If your own loved-one was diagnosed with breast cancer, what steps would you take to make sure they would not perish from the disease?

These are important things to think about.  I know you work hard.  I work hard at staying alive.  Both jobs are difficult.

What I’m asking you to do is to consider your role in the fight to end breast cancer.  Are you winning or losing?  What can you personally do to ask the right research questions that are not redundant or merely interesting, but are important to finally putting an end to breast cancer?  How can you make sure that your research makes a real difference and foster translation into the clinic?

I’m fighting the battle every day.  Please do what you can to fight with me.  Put an end to building stairways to nowhere.

Sincerely,

Sandra Spivey

Illness Magnet

It’s often said that “Opposites Attract” but what about people with illnesses or those who know someone with serious heath conditions?  Do they attract?

When I was originally diagnosed with breast cancer in 1995, I unintentionally became the hub of all things health and cancer related.  At work, people told me stories of Aunt Matilda who died a horrible death from colon cancer that eventually invaded her brain.  Or a best friend who, after battling breast cancer for four years, died leaving behind her five year old triplets to be raised by their unemployed alcoholic father.

Why did I have to know about these people?  What was I to do with such information?  It seems when some people hear the word “cancer,” they do a brain search for that word and blurt out whatever story is in their head about the subject, no matter how horrifying.  And the person who patiently listens to the story (me) tries to figure out if she’s meant to comfort the story teller, ask more questions about the situation, or detail how my situation might be different than the tale’s protagonist.

Is it not enough to have to face the burden of one’s own illness, but also have to shoulder the burden of emotionally supporting another person’s loss or health scare?  Or to provide specifics about my own health issues to someone who has thus far ranked as a “say Hi in the hallways” friend up to this point?

What I’ve surmised is that some people just don’t think.  They don’t know what to say when they learn of a serious health condition of one of their friends, co-workers or family members.  So they think about themselves and their experiences with the disease or related disease.  They share War Stories.   This is similar to situations pregnant women who have to listen to jaw-dropping stories of 48 hour labors or babies born with severe challenges.

When I discovered I that my cancer had spread to my bones, one woman at work checked in on me daily, letting me know how her sore back was coming along.  She had the condition for months and kept the pain under control with yoga and Tylenol.  As she spoke, my internal dialog was active “I realize she’s hurting, but how does telling me about it do anything for her or for me?  Yes, she is having a hard time standing up straight, but the pain in my hip makes it nearly impossible for me to walk at all.  And this wig is really itchy.  I need some alone time.”  I had to look around my office to see if there was a hidden camera recording each encounter, which would be played on some future reality TV program.  Was she going to burst out laughing, pointing to the camera and say “Gotcha”?

There came a time when cancer treatment caused my immune system to crash and I needed to stay away from people.  So, during weekdays, I my office as a bunker, equipped with jumbo bottles of hand sanitizer.  I was lucky to have a job where I could use the phone and email to accomplish most of my objectives.  By this time, many more co-workers knew of my condition.  The in-person visits became phone calls and emails.  People asked what I needed.  I had to figure out what I needed.  Maybe I just needed to be alone?

I found this great article on the American Cancer Society’s website:  “When Someone You Know Has Cancer”

http://www.cancer.org/cancer/news/when-someone-you-know-has-cancer

Another article “When Someone You Work With Has Cancer”

http://www.cancer.org/treatment/understandingyourdiagnosis/talkingaboutcancer/whensomeoneyouworkwithhascancer/index

Both have outstanding tips, thoughtfully put together from those who have been through treatment for cancer and those who have supported them.

As I was working through my emotions on the subject of feeling like a health junkie dumping ground, I decided to take the high road.  The stories had to be told by the teller.  I could choose listen to them as a way to both help the other person and a way to understand that the other person was coping in the best way they could at the time.  I learned how to tactfully cut conversations short.  I learned that people wanted to help but didn’t know how.  So I developed ideas on how they could help:  send me funny cards in the mail; shoot me an email every once in awhile to tell me how they’re doing;, text me a humorous photo of something happening in their lives.

After all of this, I trained to become a breast cancer helpline volunteer and speak with those facing stage IV disease.  I’ve been able to share in the frustrations of other women feeling like they have become Illness Magnets in their workplaces or families.  And most importantly, I’ve given them some perspective on how they can broaden the conversation away from disaster stories to things that can actually help them get through the workday.

Yes, I’m still an Illness Magnet.  But, no, I don’t let every scrap of disease-related situations stick.

A Bone to Pick with Peggy Fleming

Have you ever called a radio talk show program? Neither had I until I was dead tired after going through bone marrow transplant in 1999 for stage IV breast cancer. I had it out with Olympic ice skater Peggy Fleming.  Well, I didn’t exactly duke it out with her, but I was very concerned about a Parade Magazine article where she was quoted as having contracted breast cancer in 1998 and now was “cured.”

http://www.peggyfleming.com/about-2/

Using the word “cured” really bothered me.  Currently there is no known cure for breast cancer.   If we had a cure, we wouldn’t be participating in a “Race for the Cure”  in our communities. We also wouldn’t mourn the lives of thousands of women and men who die from the disease each annually.

I felt that Peggy Fleming’s comment might make others think if they were “cured,” they wouldn’t need regular check-ups with their surgeons or oncologists. Why spend the money if there is no chance of recurrence? Having been involved in the breast cancer community for a few years, I knew of women who had been diagnosed with early stage breast cancers, only to see cancer return decades later.

Unfortunately, there currently is no 100% preventive treatment against recurrence.  One morning in October 1999, as I was dragging my chemo-drenched body out of bed, I was listening to KPCC’s “Talk of the City” broadcasting from Pasadena, CA.  The guest was none other than Peggy Fleming speaking about her new autobiography.  My heart started racing.  This was my opportunity to give her a message.

I called in as soon as the phone number was announced and reached the phone screener immediately.  As I was explaining what I wanted to talk about, I got teary-eyed and my voice cracked a few times.  The screener said my topic sounded great and put me on hold.

As I was on hold, I was thinking of all the reasons why I should hang up immediately.  Why was I doing this?  Peggy Fleming is a nice person.  Why make her feel bad?  Before I could answer my own questions, I heard “We have Sandi from Laguna Niguel. What is it you’d like to talk about with Peggy Fleming?”

I swallowed hard just to keep my heart from bursting out of my throat.  Citing the Parade Magazine article, I identified myself as a breast cancer survivor and said that it was a mistake for Peggy Fleming to label herself as “cured.”  She responded in her usual gracious way that she had a very “curable” form of breast cancer.  The host mentioned that being “cured” is a state of mind.

I interrupted by stating that if I had labeled myself as “cured” after having a “curable” form of breast cancer diagnosed four years earlier, that I may not have continued my follow-up appointments with my oncologist and may have missed the fact that breast cancer invaded my bones in 1998.  I could very well be dead by now.

Ms. Fleming said she was sorry if others interpreted her comment in that same way and said she in fact was continuing her follow-up appointments.  The host then talked about the importance of celebrities making accurate statements to the public.

That was about it.  I know there were a few other exchanges but I can’t remember exactly what they were.  I listened to the rest of the show.  The other callers were “gushers.”  They gushed about Peggy Fleming’s Olympic achievements and how they admired her as a person.  I admire her as well but my call was the only one to challenge her public statements.

Is this a case of breast cancer survivor against breast cancer survivor?  I think not.  I’d like to believe it’s about educating those who should know better.  It’s about taking responsibility for one’s words and actions, particularly for people in the public eye.  I hope I made an impact on one individual who has the potential to help the breast cancer cause in so many ways.  And, I hope that one day she and others can confidently and accurately label themselves “cured.”

Starting out

Since my retirement as a human resource professional in 2008, my life has been filled with cats and cancer. I have been lucky enough to be asked to mentor several people I’ve worked with in the past on career advice and sticky people issues. That has helped keep my mind active.

My grown daughter, Allison, and her tuxedo cat, Bickley, moved back home soon after I retired. Allison and I soon started volunteering at the local animal shelter, cleaning cat cages and playing with cats every Saturday morning.  We adopted cat #2, Tiny Baby Sweetheart Honey Cupcake Sugar Princess Yummy Gumdrop, who proved to be everything but Tiny. Soon after that, we decided to adopt our son’s three-legged cat, Buddy (who my husband Bill now calls Zoom-Zoom due to her adept running skills).  So our lives are filled with floating fur and hair balls. 

In 1995, I was diagnosed with breast cancer and expected to complete treatment and be done with it, as happened to my mom in 1980. My cancer had other ideas and infested my bones in 1998 at age 45. I read where 10% of those with the same disease lived past 3 years. I decided to sign up for that group and am happy to say that my membership application was accepted. 

I’ve had several cancer adventures, from 3 weeks in the hospital for a bone marrow transplant to sitting next to cancer researchers determining the strengths and weaknesses of various breast cancer research proposals.  

So my life is now filled with cats and cancer. The cats provide therapeutic value in dealing with cancer. It’s the perfect mix for a retiree like me.