When I was 31 years old, my doctor told me I had only 3 years left to live: a meditation on life with stage 4 breast cancer
By Erin Grant
Three years left to live if I was lucky, that is.
My life with metastatic breast cancer began when I was 31-years-old. I had no family history… but I did have a 10 centimeter tumor in my right breast and two tumors on my liver at an unusually young age. I was told by my first oncologist that I would be “lucky to see 34.” In just one day, my life as a “healthy young person” with a boundless future vanished, replaced by a new identity as “cancer patient” with a dark and meager few years left on this earth.
I will turn 38 this year. So I guess you could say that the oncologist was wrong.
Doctors didn’t really know what to do with a pre-menopausal woman with metastatic breast cancer. I was informed that there was no treatment protocol for me, but that I could be “kept comfortable” for the remainder of my days. Luckily my cancer “journey” (side note: I, like many people living with metastatic cancer, absolutely despise this word. I’m not traveling to a resort in the Caribbean, people, I’m looking for doctors who will treat my CANCER!) enabled me to access doctors who were willing to treat me. Those doctors have kept me alive and fighting for the last (nearly) seven years.
But my fight hit a critical point a few months ago when my loyal oncologist of the last few years told me I was out of treatment options. I’d undergone every chemotherapy that was available to me, some of them two or three times, and my body had reached its photon radiation maximum. 112 chemotherapy sessions and 52 radiation treatments, and I’d officially hit the end of the road.
This critical shift stemmed from a new and serious change with my breast cancer: it has metastasized to the inside of my spinal cord. Previous to this, there had been cancer camping out in the spinal fluid around my spine, and in an effort to treat those cells, I had a port known as an Ommaya reservoir (how exotic sounding, right?) placed in my head.
It distributed medicine in between the lobes of my brain, keeping it safely tucked inside my spinal canal.
But that treatment, like many others before it, stopped working… and my insidious cancer seeped its way inside of my spine. My doctor calmly explained that no drugs currently available were capable of crossing the blood-brain barrier to treat my disease. What was I supposed to do with that information? After so many years of treatments and experiments, hair loss and hair regrowth, emotional warfare and terrifying change, the thought of hitting the end felt unreal. My life for the last near-decade had been dedicated to surmounting this awful, awful disease… and now I had no choice but to throw in the towel?
I’m not very good with no’s.
After prodding and pleading, my oncologist suggested that I fly from Miami to New York to see if someone at Memorial Sloan Kettering (MSK) — the holy grail of cancer centers — could help me. She was right to suggest MSK, although things didn’t go so smoothly at first. I had renowned doctors at multiple treatment centers take one look at my scans and turn me away — some even cancelling my appointments before I arrived, telling me that my disease had progressed too far inside my spinal cord and there was nothing they could do.
But I knew that there had to be something out there for me, I just needed to get in front of someone who would see me and not my scans! Even after almost seven years of consistent treatment, I knew I was able to fight, and fight hard. Fighting for my life was my entire life. All I have done since the day I was diagnosed was conquer the odds. How could no one recognize this?
And then, like a piercing streak of sunshine out of a blackened cloud, came a solution.
As a last-ditch effort, an oncologist I had been meeting with at MSK introduced me to Dr. Oren Cahlon, a radiation oncologist at MSK and ProCure, a proton therapy facility in Somerset, New Jersey. Miraculously, Dr. Cahlon saw ME, the (still) living, (still) breathing Erin — not my cancer, not my scans. He decided, after we spoke, that he would give me the chance to fight that I so desperately sought.
Dr. Cahlon informed me that I was a candidate for proton therapy (a more targeted form of radiation that is often used in difficult or complex cases like mine). With my best friend Lindsay in tow, we headed out to New Jersey to meet the treatment team at ProCure and get the rundown of how the whole process would work. After learning about my treatment and meeting my care team, we went outside, sat on the grass in front of the facility, and cried tears of joy.
I had hope.
For the first time in so long, someone believed in me, believed that I could fight and was worth fighting for. Cancer, while treacherous, can also be filled with small miracles that add up to something you might call luck.
On that early spring day, as I cried with my friend enjoying the grass and the sunshine outside, I felt lucky.
As of today, I have completed my 28 proton treatments (yes, you counted right — that’s a grand total of 80 radiation treatments since diagnosis!) and basically all of my neurological symptoms I was experiencing as a result of my spine metastasis have subsided.
I don’t know what will happen next, but really, does anyone? What I do know is that I still have a spark within me, and I’ve got my metaphoric boxing gloves on.
And despite all of these unknowns looming around me, my message remains the same: you are the expert on what you’re capable of and you MUST be your own advocate. Being the primary champion of my own health was exhausting, but it enabled me to break past the “no’s” that had for so long followed me and my cancer. Perhaps that, above all else, is my miracle: finding “yes” in a sea of “no’s.”