Stick it to Stage 4!

By Susan Rahn

I was 15 when I had my first breast needle biopsy. I had discovered a lump that didn’t feel right, and my Mom took me to see our family doctor. The doctor said it was nothing, but little did I know what was to come.

Later, my obstetrician-gynecologist told me I had dense breast tissue, and she suggested I cut down on caffeine and start taking evening of primrose to help with the breast pain when I ovulated.

My first mammogram was in 2001, when I was 31. There was something that didn’t feel right, but I was told I was okay, although I should have another screening the following year. When you have dense breast tissue, it all feels lumpy and it’s very difficult to distinguish between regular tissue and a lump that doesn’t belong there. But because I live in the United States and my insurance wouldn’t cover it, I didn’t have another mammogram a year later.

In December 2009, when I was 39, my Mom was diagnosed with Stage 1 breast cancer. I learned that I could get a free mammogram paid by the state because of my history and my mom’s cancer diagnosis. I had my second mammogram in January 2010. I was called back for an ultrasound and cysts were documented in both breasts. They recommended that I have another mammogram in one year, but I didn’t have one in 2011 because by then I didn’t have any health insurance.

In November 2012 I went to a different radiologist because they were known for being state-of-the-art and had 3D technology. Shortly after I received my all-clear letter; however, I later found out that the mammogram was done incorrectly and that my cancer was missed.

In August 2013, three months after my 43rd birthday, I went to my primary care physician because I thought I had a kidney infection. When the medication didn’t work, she ordered a CT scan. My doctor became concerned when the CT scan showed a rib lesion. Then came the MRI. I knew in my gut that something was very wrong.

When my doctor called me to give me the results, I learned that not only was there a rib lesion, but the MRI had picked up a spinal tumor. My head began to spin when my doctor talked about having to consult an oncologist.

I had cancer.

My PET scan was one week later. I will never forget that day. I was prepped at 7 am, and my phone rang at 5 pm. The PET scan revealed that the cancer was in my right breast. What about my spine and rib, I asked? My doctor explained that it was more than likely that my breast cancer that had metastasized. I told her that I didn’t know what that meant. There was silence on the other end theof the line and finally my doctor said that the breast cancer had spread to my bones, and that she was sorry, but it was Stage 4. I hung up the phone, went into my bedroom, sat on my bed and tried to make sense of it all. How would I tell my husband? What would I tell my son?? I had cancer and I was going to die.

Biopsies of both my breast and my rib confirmed I had IDC ER/PR+ HER2- Stage 4 breast cancer. Genetic testing revealed that I don’t have a breast cancer gene.

It’s been just over one year since my diagnosis. I have gone through radiation on my spine and my rib. I’ve been on Exemestane since October 2013 and I’m stable for now. But at some point the Exemestane won’t work and the cancer will begin to spread again. Until then, I do what I can to educate people about the importance of research, because it’s our only hope for a vaccine against breast cancer and a cure for those of us with metastatic disease.