Advanced Breast Cancer Survivor

Feeling fulfilled

Advanced breast cancer survivor always searching for ‘joy in the moment’

Despite a challenging treatment regimen and plenty of reasons to despair, Dikla Benzeevi manages to find the positive in each day of her advanced breast cancer "thrivership." Her knack of finding balance in her life has led to a greater sense of gratitude and fulfillment.

 

Living with metastatic breast cancer is a roller coaster ride, but you’re not alone: More than 150,000 people in the U.S. are living well and longer with this incurable, life-threatening illness. I know because I’m one of them.

I was initially diagnosed with Stage III breast cancer in 2002. I was single, living alone and 32 years old. I lost my parents to cancer many years earlier. When I was told I had a 4-centimeter tumor in my right breast, the world became muted. It was a very scary time. Fortunately, my brothers walked through all of this with me.

Treatment began six weeks later, first with four rounds of neoadjuvant chemotherapy to shrink the tumor, followed by a lumpectomy and lymph node resection. Three months of chemotherapy and radiation followed. My breast cancer is HER2+ and I went through a year of trastuzumab (Herceptin).

When I had been initially diagnosed with breast cancer, I couldn’t find other young women with the same diagnosis, and I was very lonely going through this experience. I didn’t want other women to go through the same thing so I organized an informal support group, which grew to more than 1,000 young women. During those years, I was coordinating that group, attending national meetings and speaking all over the country.

I continued working throughout treatment, despite being extremely fatigued. By 2004 I took a leave of absence to rest and recover. I had also developed a backache that continued to worsen. In December 2004, I had a CT scan and the doctors discovered a metastatic tumor in my spine and I went back on active treatment. Due to the threat of paralysis from the spinal tumor, I was immediately put in my first of three chin-to-waist back braces. I underwent radiation treatments and subsequently a spine fusion surgery. Physical therapy followed.

The next year was a year of humble pie for me. I couldn’t bend, drive or lift anything. I didn’t want to be a burden to anyone, but I couldn’t function by myself. I reached out to everyone I knew including breast cancer support group peers. Thankfully, 10 friends responded. They were my lifeline as they drove me to appointments, helped me with groceries and washing—all the tasks of daily living. It taught me a lesson to accept help when I need it.

I slowly recuperated and had a relatively good year in 2006. In 2007, however, a second metastasis was discovered in my lung. I had to have surgery to remove 10 percent of my right lung. That year I also met my boyfriend, who is fantastic and has steadfastly supported me through all the chemotherapy infusions and treatments that continued through the subsequent years. I recently had my 38th treatment with ado-trastuzumab (Kadcyla), which has kept my lung tumors small. Hopefully, I can stretch out my time on this drug as long as possible before I have to switch treatments because this one is so easy on my body.

Learning to live with metastatic breast cancer becomes a balancing act of working with your oncologist to modify or change medications based on their effectiveness and side effects’ severity, and coping mentally and emotionally with the diagnosis and treatments. I strive to live a balanced and rewarding life, and I hope for when I have “No Evidence of Disease.”

You can live with advanced disease. At the end of the day, those of us living with metastatic breast cancer must cope with uncertainty and – at times – fear, but with the continual help of my medical team, nurturing and caring support network, boyfriend and family, I find joy in the moment and focus on gratitude.

Don’t go through this alone. That’s always been my main concern. There are in-person and online support groups and websites to help. You may find that while it’s a daily challenge, you can create a fulfilling life and a healthy mindset. Our treatment doesn’t end, but that doesn’t mean our lives can’t be well-lived each day.

 

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