Pink Ribbons Aside, Cancer Remains a Beast 11/22/09 Concord Monitor
On Oct. 21, my beautiful sister Lisa died from breast cancer. She was 56.
Lisa originally received the diagnosis of breast cancer in 1992. She underwent a mastectomy, chemotherapy and radiation treatment. She remained in remission for more than 15 years.
Then, in late 2007, Lisa developed a persistent cough. After much prodding, she went back to the doctor. In December of that year, she got the bad news of a recurrence. There was evidence of cancer in her lung, liver and brain.
Lisa gamely pursued both traditional and non-traditional treatment. She was starting her sixth round of chemotherapy when she died.
Her life had evolved into an unending whirl of medical appointments. She underwent almost weekly chemo infusions. She contemptuously brushed off side effects and hid her suffering behind a mask of stoicism.
The cumulative effects of the chemo aged Lisa dramatically. It was like someone flicked a switch and the aging process speeded up. She lost her hair. A gray pallor replaced her previously rosy skin. Lisa also lost her appetite and, despite constant protestations that she needed to eat, she wasted away. She said food did not taste good anymore.
It was the spread of cancer to her liver that proved most problematic. The chemo delayed tumor growth but could not stop it. Lisa developed ascites, a fluid buildup in her abdomen. She became increasingly jaundiced.
I accompanied her to her last scheduled chemo appointment. It turned out that she was too weak to have it. Tapping her abdomen to drain off fluid was the only medical treatment left. That treatment temporarily stopped discomfort, but the ascites did not stop. It relentlessly returned, worsening as it progressed. Doctors tapped Lisa’s stomach a number of times.
Earlier, it had seemed
like Lisa had cancer on the run, but that turned around. Cancer did not take a day off.
Lisa worked until the day she died. She was an immigration law attorney in Philadelphia with a large and active private practice. For months, I had tried to get her to stop practicing. I thought she should apply for Social Security Disability, for which she would have been medically eligible. She consistently refused my suggestion.
I would call her on a Saturday night and more often than not she would be working on a case. I would say, “C’mon Lise, it’s Saturday night.” She ignored me. I wanted to lessen her stress, but work gave her satisfaction and a sense of creative self-expression. She got pleasure out of helping people, and it paid bills.
On her last day of life, lying in bed, she asked to make a phone call.
“Who do you want to call?” I asked.
“An immigration officer.”
I handed over my cell phone. In laborious but woozy fashion, Lisa punched in the number, got voicemail and left a message. She explained that she was calling on behalf of a client and she spelled out the client’s name. She said, “I am not feeling too well today. Could you give me a call in the morning?”
When she got off the phone, she told me, “You don’t understand. If this guy gets deported, his life will be over.” She told me she had worked on the client’s case for years.
Lisa died that night. She had been sleeping more, and she lapsed into unconsciousness. She spent her last couple of hours gasping for breath.
Breast cancer remains an absolute beast. Despite all the pink ribbons and races for the cure, treatment options leave much to be desired, especially for older women who have a recurrence. In Lisa’s case, I would say this is true even though she had a fine oncologist whom she trusted.
I had somehow expected better. I was surprised to find out that the average life expectancy after breast cancer recurrence for someone like my sister is only six to 12 months. That stinks.
Lisa made it almost two years. That is better than most. She did get that earlier 15 years, too. Still, she went through medical hell and ultimately treatment failed.
I remain outraged at the disease that took my sister. It is a cold killer. According to the Centers for Disease Control, aside from non-melanoma skin cancer, breast cancer is the most common form of cancer in women. In 2005, the most recent year numbers were available, 186,467 women were diagnosed with breast cancer and 41,116 women died from it. These are staggering numbers.
To say we need better, more effective treatment seems lamely weak.
We need the equivalent of an Apollo program for curing breast cancer. We should set goals and a timetable for a cure.
I don’t think we even ask the right questions about breast cancer. Where is all the money raised going? How effectively has it been used? How about looking at food, water, and other environmental factors to see if they are a contributing cause? How about critically assessing if breast cancer treatment is actually better than it was 50 years ago?
Rather than an elite discussion among a handful of experts speaking medical jargon, how about an accessible public discussion?
It is easy to be lulled into a false sense of security what with all the pink everything. I have nothing against the pink. I like seeing NFL players and coaches wearing pink. Still, potentially thousands of lives of our sisters, mothers and daughters are at stake.
I did not expect my beloved sister to die so soon. I do not think I will ever get over that.