When I was first diagnosed with metastatic male breast cancer, I was not prepared to make any major changes in my life. There were just a few small lesions in my lungs. I was fully functional, working full-time as an attorney and had no interest in changing my daily routine.
That was about 6 years ago. Fast forward to today – lesions in my lung are “too numerous to count” according to the radiologist’s report; 5 bouts of gamma knife radiation of the brain for a total of 13 lesions treated; radiation to most of my spine; and now large metastatic lesions in my liver. Even with all of this, my good quality of life did not change until…a lesion on my tibia (a bone between the knee and the ankle) gave me an “elevated risk for fracture,” requiring that I wear a leg brace and walk with a cane.
The lesion to my tibia was the game changer. All of a sudden, my quality of life was deeply affected: the simple act of walking was no longer quite so simple. I felt an urgent need to “get my affairs in order.” As I write this blog I am preparing for chemotherapy, which I have done my best to avoid for the past 6 years, taking advantage of any hormonal or targeted therapy that I could get my hands on. I am finally starting to feel like a “real cancer patient.”
So what do I do now? I have started living by the clichés that I have heard many times over the years, clichés that now ring truer than ever. Here are just a couple of those clichés that I didn’t come to truly appreciate until the years of living with metastatic cancer rolled by:
“Cancer is a family disease.” There is no doubt that this disease affects everyone in the family, in my case my wife Janeth and my 14-year-old daughter Juliana. We worry a lot about my health and sometimes have to limit our activities due to my seemingly endless doctor visits, tests and treatment. But although my family and I have been living over the years with this added stress and with the uncertainty of my future, there has also been a positive effect. We have become closer, more tolerant, and able to better appreciate the most important things in life. Compared to our lives prior to my metastatic diagnosis, we have spent more time together, as well as more time with our extended family and our closest friends. In a sense, we have been able to love and be loved more than ever.
“You’ve got to live life to the fullest!” This was the advice of my daughter just a few nights ago when I shared with her the latest bout of not-so-good news. A person doesn’t need a cancer diagnosis to take this advice to heart, but it has never been more relevant to me since I have been living with metastatic disease. The truth of this cliché becomes more evident as the disease progresses. As time goes by, I have savored with greater intensity the hug of a loved one or friend, the sound of some beautiful music or the simple pleasure of a sweet dessert. I have also experienced a growing feeling that I need to take the opportunity to get those long overdue tasks done, whether they involve mending broken relationships, helping others in need and even getting those projects done around the house that I’ve been putting off for years. I would love to believe that my “cure is around the corner,” but since it doesn’t look like that possibility is in the very near future, I am acting as though my time might be coming sooner than later. This effort has given me an immediate payoff, for with each accomplished task, I have an enhanced sense of completion and satisfaction, which I rarely found in prior years.
In closing, I would like to express my gratitude to the fine folks at Living Beyond Breast Cancer who put together their Annual Fall Conference last month. With the help of a travel grant, I was able to continue my mission of living life to the fullest by hopping on a plane to attend the conference personally. In one jam-packed day I was able to meet some wonderful people, learn about current treatments and trials for metastatic disease, receive a heavy dose of motivation and attend a very insightful discussion group. One little “jewel” that I picked up from that discussion group was from the leader, who said that when you’re the recipient of some not-so-terrific news, “It’s OK to fall down, but then go into problem-solving mode.” Right now my problem-solving mode is in full swing – my tibia has been radiated, the pain is gone, I’m walking mostly without a brace and my glorious healing chemotherapy awaits! So no matter what’s on the horizon, I think I’m set for one more cliché: “Life is good!”
Read more blog posts in this series at lbbc.org/hearmyvoice.
Scott Cotlar was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer in 2008. He lives in Houston, Texas, with his wife Janeth and daughter Juliana. He enjoys spending time with his family and friends, and living his life to the fullest. Scott wrote an essay for LBBC in 2013, which can be found on our website, lbbc.org.