The Big C hits home

I’ve been lucky in life in many ways. I’ve thanked God numerous times that my family and close friends have been spared from serious illness. Countless friends have told me that their mother/father/sister/brother/child/loved one have been diagnosed with various illnesses. A couple of years ago my friend’s wife was diagnosed with breast cancer. It attacked her hard, and she kicked it in the teeth. While she was fighting, her husband was diagnosed with prostate cancer. What a one-two punch. But right now, both of them are healthy. Praise the Lord. Until 5 weeks ago, this was the closest cancer got to me.

Until now.

As you may remember, my little family traveled to Charlottesville, VA at the end of June. On Monday, July 1st, as we were traveling home, my brother texted me to tell me he had to talk to me. He had been house sitting for us for the weekend, so at first I was concerned that something was wrong with the house or the dog. He assured me the house and dog were fine, but that it was important that he speak with me in person. I couldn’t figure out what could be so important. We decided to stop at the playground to let Little Dude run around for a bit after 5 hours in the car. I told my brother we’d be late. Then we decided to stop for some dinner. I texted him again. By then, he told me it was imperative that I get home. I was mystified.

When we got home, he cut to the chase: mom was in the hospital and had been diagnosed with breast cancer. And it’s bad.

What? I must have heard that incorrectly. It could not be possible. Not my mother.

That’s the thing about cancer. It’s a nasty bitch who doesn’t care whose mother/sister/father/brother/loved one it attacks. It’s an equal opportunity attacker. It will attack a 2 pack per day smoker who survives on junk food the same way it attacks a never-smoked-a-cigarette, health food nut. It will attack someone working at McDonald’s for minimum wage the same way it attacks the CEO of a Fortune 500 company (though the insurance plans covering the two likely differ entirely, and that’s a different subject altogether). It doesn’t discriminate.

We visited mom that night, and she seemed to be doing okay. She looked good, and was still laughing and joking. We watched American Ninja Warrior in her hospital room, and tried not to dwell on what was happening. (As a side note, we are now into that show. It’s ridiculous, but we watch it whenever we realize it’s on. Grrr…what a time-suck.) Unfortunately, she became very sick, very fast.

The next couple of weeks just plain sucked. Mom was very sick, and was in a ton of pain. It is terrible to see your mother in that sort of condition. I mean, this is the woman who took care of me, and now? Now cancer was ravaging her body and there was nothing I could do about it. All I could do was bug my dad to let me help. I vacuumed their living room. I brought down the trash cans. I watered the flowers. I helped get her to and from appointments. I attended appointments. I made dinner. I sat with mom. I watched “bad” tv with her.  But I couldn’t do anything to make her any better. And that sucked. It totally sucked.

After two weeks of seemingly non-stop tests and lots of nasty side effects for Mom, we received the official diagnosis. It was almost exactly what mom predicted: stage IV inflammatory breast cancer. Stage IV indicates that it had spread beyond the breast. In her case it spread to her lymph nodes and bones. It was not in any other organs or the other breast.

What is inflammatory breast cancer, and how is it different than other forms of breast cancer? Great questions. According to cancer.org:

Inflammatory breast cancer (IBC) is rare. . . There is some disagreement in the numbers, but IBC probably accounts for about 1% of all breast cancers diagnosed in the United States. Some experts believe that IBC may be more common, but diagnosing it is often difficult. This can mean the disease is not being reported as often as it should.

Inflammatory breast cancer causes symptoms that are often different from those of more common breast cancers. It rarely causes a breast lump, and it might not show up on a mammogram. Because it doesn’t look like a typical breast cancer, it can be harder to diagnose.

IBC tends to occur at a younger age than the more common form of breast cancer (at an average age 52 versus 57 for non-inflammatory breast cancer). Also, African-American women appear to be at higher risk of IBC than white women. It also is more common among women who are overweight or obese.

IBC also tends to be more aggressive—it grows and spreads much more quickly— than more common types of breast cancer. By definition, it is never found at an early stage. It is always at least stage IIIB (locally advanced) when it is first diagnosed because the breast cancer cells have grown into the skin. Often, though, it has already spread to distant parts of the body when it is diagnosed, making it stage IV (metastatic). The advanced stage of IBC, along with the tendency to grow and spread quickly, makes it harder to treat successfully than most other types of breast cancer.. . . .

IBC is an aggressive cancer because it grows quickly, is more likely to have spread at the time it is found, and is more likely to come back after treatment than most other types of breast cancer. The prognosis (outlook) is generally not as good as it is for most other types of breast cancer.

In the past, women with IBC lived on average only about 18 months after diagnosis. With advances in treatment, such as using the combination of chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery, survival has improved.

According to data from the National Cancer Institute’s Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results (SEER) database, for patients who were diagnosed with inflammatory breast cancer between 1988 and 2001, the 5-year relative survival rate was about 40%. This compares with about 87% for all breast cancers combined.

There is a lot more information on IBC at www.cancer.org. I personally never heard of it until Mom got sick. I would encourage you – especially you women – to learn more about it.

Mom has been through two of six (possibly eight) chemotherapy treatments so far. (No radiation treatment was ordered.) Leading up to the first one, she was so, so sick. The doctor assured us that she would feel much better after one or two treatments. We were trusting him on this one; it was hard since everyone always says how bad they feel after chemo. Well, the first few days after chemo #1 were rough. But then, just a couple of days before round 2, something amazing happened. It – the chemo – made its presence in her body known, and she started feeling better. She was nearly pain free. The water weight she gained was gone. The inflammation was reduced. Lots of good things were happening.

Mom is now several days past chemo #2. She’s having some problems, but they are related to some of the medications she had to go on about 10 days ago. She is still pain free, and it seems as though she’s responding well to the chemo. Praise the Lord.

During the last 5 weeks, we’ve seen cancer rear its ugly head. But at the same time, we’ve seen just how beautiful people can be, and we continue to be impressed. S and I shared this news with several of our friends since we knew we might need some help. Almost everyone we told offered to help us in any way they could. We’ve had people babysit Little Dude literally at the drop of a hat. (One friend came over with only 15 minutes’ notice. Amazing.) My dad’s co-workers have been beyond spectacular. They’ve made sure that my parents (and brother, niece and nephew who live with them) have tons and tons of quick and easy food to eat so they don’t have to worry about cooking.

So that’s it. I don’t know how to end this blog post, so I will do so with a request. Please keep my mom and dad in your thoughts and prayers. Good night.

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