Last updated: May 2023
"She's battling cancer," they always say. It seems people who see us suffering from metastatic breast cancer always want to use war metaphors to describe what is happening to us; they want to imagine their loved ones going into a fair fight, armed with the will of a soldier. The more apt analogy is that cancer is a cold-blooded, merciless Monster who is out for blood.
The cancer battlefield
On the other hand, war is much less scary: armies are structured, every soldier has a job, and battleplans are straightforward. Likewise, most early-stage breast cancer patients' interactions with the monster appear quite structured, too. Patients find it early, and they undergo the standard treatments, maybe one or two surprises along the way, but in the end, doctors have kept him at bay. As a result, these patients are considered stronger for the battle scars they adorn. Now, they are survivors.
But what happens to those who don't survive, the ones who "lost their battle with cancer?" The ones who couldn't "fight hard enough?" Was it their fault for being too weak? For not cutting out gluten or for eating too much sugar? Did they give up? Did they really "lose their battle with cancer?"
It's not any of those things because we are not at war. Instead, we are getting slaughtered by the number one killer in the world: the metastatic monster.
Finding your people
In the cancer community, there is a saying, "I am sorry you had to join us, but I am really glad you are here." When I joined my first cancer community, I had just finished treatment for stage two invasive ductal carcinoma. I was depressed, the check-in calls and visits from my friends had all abruptly stopped, my work had given me back my full workload. However, I was still in really bad pain, and unbeknownst to me, the monster already had plans for me. I felt alone and scared about my future, and I needed to find some people who "knew."
A sense of belonging
The First Descents program sponsors a variety of outdoor adventures for young adults who suffer from cancer. Through them, I participated in a week-long rock climbing trip in Washington state. Every day a group of us cancer survivors and patients went on daily climbs where, with the collective moral support of the group, we were able to get even the sickest attendees to scale to sheer rock walls, screaming "F**K cancer" as they got to the top. Then at night, we came home base to fresh-made hot chocolate and group therapy. We all understood what it felt like to be on the other side of a cancer diagnosis. This was Xanadu and felt too good to be true.
Too good to be true
And unfortunately, it was too good to be true. While I was having the time of my life, one of the youngest attendees, a 17-year-old kid, got the call that their doctors would not continue with treatment. So instead, the Monster would be waiting at home for this delightfully exceptional child whose eyes encapsulated both a lifetime of potential as well as how cruel it could be.
Watching your people die
That kid was not at war. That kid was murdered in cold blood. The most bitter side effect of MBC that no doctor will ever tell you about is that you will meet the most amazing people, and then you will watch them die. We're all prey to the savage monster, and there will be nothing you can do about it except comfort them before he comes.
Back in California, my adventures continued with surfing and paddle boarding and more rock climbing. I thought I had found the golden ticket: put up with a little cancer, and then poof, I was living my best life. I felt like I had gotten away with something. This didn't seem fair.
The metastatic monster
And it wasn't, because hiding behind that stage two life was the stage four one, where the monster lives. A monster more terrifying than could live in your worst nightmares. The metastatic one, he plays his victims like puppets, gives them a rope to cling to, then right as they get comfortable, he lets them fall. Some are just in the prime of life when he starts his torture. Some reach No Evidence of Disease (NED) status and go to live on for years. However, the worry lingers in the back of their mind: Will he come back for them or not? WELL... WILL HE?
Living my best life as a scared patient
It was the metastatic monster who was waiting to chop off my wings the moment I was ready to fly. So now, I'll fight, not as a soldier, not as a warrior, but as a scared patient. And when I'm too weak to get out of bed, it's not because I didn't fight hard enough, but instead because I spent all my energy living my best life. I'm still here, and so are you. And as long as we are in it together, we can make that monster less scary and make sure he has less control over our lives.
Alright, monster. Let's go.
Are you checking off any bucket list items this summer?
Join the conversation