As a nurse working in outpatient oncology, cancer is something I’m surrounded by. As time goes by, I’ve unwillingly learned to live with the fact that it seems like cancer is taking over the world and affecting more and more young people. (I stink at statistics so I don’t have any hard facts to back that feeling but I seem to be seeing way too many young people undergoing chemo.) Yet even with the walls we build to protect ourselves from the hurt at the loss of each patient we have come to know, every nurse has a soft spot for certain patients. For me, it’s young mothers with cancer. I don’t know why. It just is. When the young mother being treated for breast cancer also happens to be your friend it’s even more heartbreaking.
Today is the last day of Breast Cancer Awareness Month. I thought that a personal story of someone living with Stage 4 Breast Cancer would do more to help raise awareness than just stating the facts and figures. By putting a name and a face to a disease we make it more personal. My friend graciously agreed to be interviewed in the hope that her story would help someone else.
Neta Eshel, is a 42-year-old mother of 4 children ages 6 1/2, 9, 13 1/2 and 17. She was diagnosed in July 2009 with Stage 3 Infiltrating (Invasive) Lobular Carcinoma. As far as she knew, there was no family history of breast cancer. She was treated with aggressive chemo, had a double mastectomy, radiation and more chemo. In September of 2011 her cancer came back. She has Stage 4 Breast Cancer with metastases to her bones.
Towards the end of 2012, Neta was hospitalized for a prolonged period of time due to a low platelet count. During that hospitalization, she woke up one morning and couldn’t see. After running a battery of tests she was told she had bleeding in her brain. She was confused and disoriented and her family braced themselves for the worse. Then, as if by a miracle, her sight returned, and she improved.
A few months later, before she even had time to catch her breath Neta’s husband was diagnosed with Stage 4 Colon Cancer. As you can imagine it, that was devastating news. Their individual and combined strength in coping has been and continues to be an inspiration for their family, their community and their many friends.
Susie: Did you have any symptoms?
Neta: I felt a lump in the shower, and I went to get checked.
S: Do you have a family history of cancer?
N: Not in my or my parents’ generation. I didn’t know about it until after I was diagnosed but there was a history of cancer in my grandparents’ generation. That’s why there was no awareness. My father’s father had pancreatic cancer, one of his sisters had breast cancer and the other sister had ovarian cancer. There was also another brother who died of cancer. I’m not sure what type. Both of my grandfather’s sisters passed away when I was young, so I didn’t really know them. On my mother’s side there is no history of cancer.
S: After you felt the lump what did you do?
N: I went to my family physician who sent me right away to the breast surgeon*. The surgeon told me to go immediately to the hospital. (*note: Here in Israel it is the breast surgeon who does breast screening.)
S: How long did it take from the time you felt the lump until you were diagnosed.
N: No time at all. Maybe four days.
S: What did they do when you got to the hospital?
N: First they did a mammogram. They then sent me immediately for an ultrasound. After the ultrasound I had gotten dressed, and I stood up, and the doctor who performed the ultrasound told me straight out “you have breast cancer”. I was at a loss for words. I stammered… How? Why? What connection does cancer have to me? I was in shock. I asked her “How do you know?” She said she knows according to the way it looks on the ultrasound. She said it’s not 100% certain, we still have to do a biopsy but she was pretty sure that’s what it was.
S: You were alone?
N: I was with my husband. I understood it was something serious the way everyone kept sending me quickly from one test to the other, but I didn’t really understand.
S: Aside from the shock, how did you feel about the way she gave you the news?
N: I don’t think it would have been any better to wait anxiously for two weeks until the biopsy results came back. I would have been very stressed out from the wait. I wanted to know the truth, I was just in shock because the whole process was very quick. I suddenly went from being the healthiest person to be the sickest person. I didn’t need someone to beautify the reality for me, the reality was the reality. The bottom line was, I didn’t need the stress.
S: What thoughts and feelings were going through your head at that moment when you got the news?
N: I remember the shock. I remember thinking I am the healthiest person, how am I going to be sick now? I also thought about the kids and what’s going to be with them. I had no idea what to expect, no awareness about what treatment meant. I didn’t really understand the implications at that moment. Afterwords when I started to process it there was a lot of crying and anger and sadness.
S: How long did the processing process take?
N: I don’t remember how long each stage took. I do remember there being a lot of anger. Anger at God. Why me? What have I done? Why do I deserve this?
After you start to process you realize that the anger doesn’t give you anything so you move to acceptance. You summon energy for a war. From the beginning I said I’m going to fight this, I’m going to win. I don’t remember being depressed. I was very into “doing”. I’m going to fight. I’m going to understand this and what it means. I don’t remember any great depression. It was obvious to me that I would fight and it will be ok.
A few months after I finished treatment, in the summer, we went on an overseas family trip, and my energy returned. I then said that I need a little luck that the cancer won’t return.
S: When did the cancer return and how?
N: It started with back pain. Two years ago, in September of 2011, my back went out on the day of the first day of school. I worked as a high school guidance counselor. The back pain went on for a few months. I right away thought about cancer but I was afraid to get it checked out by my oncologist. I first went to get checked by an orthopedist. I did a bone scan and then was treated by a chiropractor for two months. It took about two or three months before it was diagnosed as a recurrence of the cancer. It was unbelievable pain. The pain came and went until it stayed.
S: What was different when you were diagnosed the second time? Was it the same shock?
N: The second time it was much harder because I understood that if it has returned, the situation is much worse. I always had the fear that the cancer would return. I hadn’t deluded myself that it couldn’t. I knew there was a possibility of it returning. It was much harder because I understood that if it has returned there is metastasis and I’m most probably not going to get rid of it. I understood what it meant and that’s why I was also afraid to get diagnosed and didn’t run immediately to my oncologist. I thought maybe my back just went out. People said to me, at one point or another back pain happens to everyone around the age 40. The shock was greater when the cancer returned because I understood that it’s not going anywhere and I can’t “get over it”.
***This post was truncated because it originally also included Part II.**
Tune in soon for the next part of a World Mom to World Mom 4 part series on living with metastasis breast cancer. The informative, yet moving, interview with Neta continues…
Cancer can happen to everyone. Listen to your body, treat it well and educate yourself about cancer symptoms. Learn not just about breast cancer symptoms (which are varied) but also the symptoms of ovarian cancer, GI cancer, lung cancer, pancreatic cancer and all the other cancers out there. Ask your parents about your family medical history. Do the recommended screening tests that are available to you because early detection of any cancer makes a hell of a difference.
Most of all enjoy every minute of your life because there are people out there who are dying for more time.
Do you have an experience of someone living with metastasis breast cancer in your corner of the world?
Click here to read Part IV of the interview.
Photo credit to Susie Newday.