Living in the Shadow of Triple Negative Breast Cancer

Last weekend was my 3-year cancerversary. With each year that passes, my cancer experience moves a little bit further away from me, yet at the same time, it cozies up to me even more.

As time goes on, you’d think I’d feel further removed from it, but I don’t. That’s the cruel thing about cancer, it’s the gift that keeps giving. I live in what feels like a constant fear of recurrence. Some days and weeks are better than others. But some stretches are really bad. Like a python winding its way around my body, tightening it’s grip on me, slowly squeezing the life out of me. To understand what I mean, let me explain a bit about my subtype of cancer.

Triple-negative breast cancer (TNBC) is a subtype of breast cancer that lacks three important hormone receptors that are used as targets for cancer treatment. These receptors are important because they reveal where the cancer is most vulnerable and help determine how to best treat it. Since triple-negative breast cancers lack the presence of all three of these receptors, this subtype of breast cancer is more difficult to treat and more likely to recur. Triple-negative breast cancers have a relapse pattern that is very different from hormone-positive breast cancers: the risk of relapse is much higher for the first 3–5 years but drops sharply and substantially below that of hormone-positive breast cancers after that.

Doctors and researchers have yet to figure out what causes TNBC. So survivors like me undergo major surgeries and intense chemotherapy protocols in the hopes of killing the cancer and keeping it at bay forever.  Unfortunately, because our cancer is not hormone positive, we don’t get the mental safety net that is 5 to 10 years of hormone blockers. We don’t get to take a pill that we know is preventing our bodies from producing the hormone that causes our cancer.

PS – I know that taking tamoxifen (or something like it) is no walk in the park. I realize I sound a bit like a brat since I don’t have to deal with 10 years of hot flashes, mood swings, libido drain, inability to carry a pregnancy and a whole host of other crap. But please understand that having no ability to do anything to ensure my cancer doesn’t come back is a total mind fuck. All we’re told is that our survival rate will increase dramatically if we can make it to the 5-year mark.

I’ve no choice but to set my 5-year timer. Tick tock, tick tock, tick tock. Ugh.

In the months leading up to my cancerversary this year, I wasn’t feeling right. I was having a lot of trouble with my lungs, and a lot of swelling and pain around my ribs, implants and armpits. I put myself back into physical therapy to try and kick start my sluggish lymphatic system. But, the issues persisted. My lungs and my bones ached. And not in a “you have a new baby, all moms are exhausted” kind if way. No, no, they ached in a scary cancer kind of way.

I was winded, exhausted and becoming increasingly terrified I was having a recurrence or worse, mets. When I looked at my daughter, my brain wouldn’t allow me to see her grown up. It was protecting me from the possibility that I might not be here to see her fully grown up. The feelings were becoming crippling. I couldn’t fully enjoy caring for my daughter. I had to do something. Set my mind at ease once and for all.

So I got a PET scan 5 days before my cancerversary. I told very few people I was having the scan done because I was really scared the results wouldn’t be good.  I just had a premonition that my good fortune was running out. You see, I’m one of the lucky ones. I have a perfect, beautiful, healthy 9-month old daughter, who was born after cancer. I was blessed enough to be able to carry her to term and birth her into this world. It was the most incredible thing that’s ever happened to me. My life is back on track, right? I’m a new mom, with a new lease on life, right? Cancer is behind me, right? I survived this, right?

But why do I feel such dread and doom hanging over me?

This is what it’s like to live in the shadow of triple negative breast cancer. As I wait to make it to my arbitrary finish line where I might be able to breathe a bit easier, I wrestle with some serious PTSD.

Thankfully, the results of my scan came back clean. I’m still dancing with NED (No Evidence of Disease). Yay!

I feel like I’ve bought myself a few months without as much worry bubbling directly under the surface of my everyday life. Now, when I workout, I happily push my lungs to the point of burning because I know there are no tumors in them. When my joints and bones ache the next day, I don’t sweat it, because I know I don’t have bone mets.

Only 725 more days to go….. Wish me luck.