Breast Cancer Survivor

Knowledge and Support are Empowering

Knowing she was losing her job (and health insurance), Katherine O’Brien scheduled long overdue medical appointments. During her physical, her doctor felt a hard spot on her breast and sent her for a diagnostic mammogram. At 43, she learned she had Stage IV breast cancer. What followed was an in-depth education about metastatic breast cancer and a passion for advocacy work.

 

When I learned my breast cancer was incurable and treatment would be lifelong, I was devastated and terrified. I watched my mom die from inflammatory metastatic breast cancer in 1983. She was diagnosed at 51 and died at 53. I assumed my experience would mirror hers. Thankfully, it hasn’t.

The National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN) guidelines on the treatment of metastatic breast cancer became my roadmap. At first it was slow going because I didn’t know the vocabulary of the disease, but I picked it up.

Getting second opinions when I was first diagnosed and again during subsequent progression has given me a new perspective. I’ve gained valuable insights and, most importantly, peace of mind.

When I discovered the Metastatic Breast Cancer Network (MBCN), it became a lifeline for me. I had not met anyone else with Stage IV breast cancer. My family's support is amazing, but to be with all these people dealing with similar things as me ... wow.

I was Stage IV from first diagnosis with a low-volume of bone-only disease. Because surgery was not a curative measure, my doctors stressed the choice was mine. My disease was stable and I was in overall good health, so I had a left unilateral mastectomy with no reconstruction. Because I had a close margin, I also had radiation therapy. I took ovarian suppression shots and had an oophorectomy. I take medications for bone strength.

My cancer was fairly slow-growing but is now widespread in my liver and bones. I generally get CT, PET and bone scans every three months to see if the treatment is working. When a drug stops working (and eventually it does), I move on to the next one. I’m on my fifth line of treatment now, an oral chemotherapy pill.

When my disease is quiet, my life is fairly normal. Progression is stressful but I look to fellow patients for inspiration and encouragement. Volunteering makes me feel useful. My advocacy work includes the Metastatic Breast Cancer Alliance and Facebook support groups for people with metastatic breast cancer.

I stay closer to home these days, but I always enjoy going someplace new. My twin brother and his wife live nearby with their triplets. They were about seven when I was diagnosed. They are teenagers now, and it has been a joy watching them grow up.

Remember, this is not an exact science. There is a lot of buzz about new treatment options. Many drugs have come out since my diagnosis, and the statistics don’t even reflect all the successes we’ve seen from them. I believe we are all a statistic of one. Take it one day at a time. As fellow cancer patient Warren Zevon once said, “Enjoy every sandwich!”

 

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