In My Words: 'Navigating breast cancer’s long road'
Associate Professor Barbara Gordon shares reflections of her personal journey during National Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
Navigating breast cancer’s long road
By Barbara L. Gordon - firstname.lastname@example.org
When I first learned that I had breast cancer on a sunny June day nearly two decades ago, a fog enveloped me. Suddenly I could not see beyond the tips of my toes. I could only take one small step forward, followed by another, and another; then, slowly, a road stretching into the future materialized under my feet.
I once thought I would march straight ahead through treatment with no looking back, but like many survivors, my road has had twists and turns. Treatment and testing became my long-term companions and the specter of cancer recurring, at times, stopped me in my tracks.
At the start of my journey some big guns were leveled at my disease – surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. The arsenal of cancer treatments runs deep. For five years after the smoke from my initial battles cleared, each morning I swallowed a pill to block estrogen from stimulating any remaining wayward cells. Following that, after many years free of cancer drugs, I tried a new medicine to lower the level of estrogen in my body.
Even while on these therapies, the recurrence specter brushed against me. A suspicious growth appeared over my left collarbone, and one was later found in my uterus and another detected on an ovary. Most significantly, I underwent exploratory surgery to learn that what appeared to be tumors spreading throughout my lungs were instead fibroids caused by an autoimmune disease.
Like everyone’s, my body produces growths, but for cancer survivors these are particularly worrisome. As a result, we are more likely to find ourselves passing through the donut hole of a CT scanner or lying on a table awaiting a scope or knife.
I do not mean to complain. I count my blessings that I have lived a long time out from my diagnosis and that I have access to excellent health care. The marvelous advances in testing and treatment, though, exact an emotional and financial toll on patients and place a burden on the healthcare system. I wonder how the system will continue to bear so many of us treading down the road.
Whether or not you are a cancer survivor, you have a stake in this road. We all end up paying for cancer care, directly out of our pocket to providers, through paying more for goods and services to enable employers to offer insurance, or through taxes that support government programs.
As cancer becomes a more chronic and less fatal disease, the rising costs may result in even greater inequitable access. Those with the most resources and the most complete insurance coverage usually have the clearest route to the best care.
We surely want top-notch care to spread, not cancer. One way to do this is to weigh the costs of various tests and treatments against their ability to enhance and prolong life. This does not mean that as a society we must adopt a restrictive and hard-hearted path. We could avoid that route if we engage in informed and compassionate conversations about reducing these costs, and if patients become better educated about the benefits and possible harm of various kinds of care. If they knew more, a number of patients would judiciously forgo some tests and treatments.
I am one of them. I decided to stop taking the drug that lowers estrogen levels. The slim advantage the medicine affords me in warding off a cancer recurrence does not offset its undesirable side effects. I am putting my chips down on the much higher odds that my cancer will not return than it will.
In making my decision I did not consider saving myself, my employer, or my fellow taxpayers any money, but it so happens I am. An informed choice can often lead to that. Not only that, but as I head past questionable testing and treatment, the road I am on affords me a bit more opportunity to appreciate the scenery along the way.
Barbara L. Gordon is an associate professor of English at Elon University and co-author of "Breast Cancer Recurrence and Advanced Disease: Comprehensive Expert Guidance" published by Duke University Press.
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Viewpoints shared by this syndicate are those of the author and not of Elon University.