Christina Applegate, the girl from “Married With Children“, has been diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 36. And according to her publicist, it’s a very very special kind of breast cancer (my words, not hers): it’s the kind that is “non-life-threatening” (her words, not mine).
So…hey, wow! Non-life-threatening breast cancer! How friggin’ cool can you get?! I mean, when I was diagnosed with breast cancer in the summer of 2002 at the age of 36, how awesome would it have been if my doctor had sat me down and said, “Don’t worry, Lauren! You have “non-life-threatening” breast cancer, not the scary kind of breast cancer that everyone else in the entire world gets.”
I mean, until I heard about Christina Applegate’s breast cancer, my understanding of breast cancer was (and remains) that no matter how early you catch it, it could still come back. And when it comes back, it will eventually kill you, unless of course, something else kills you first. Like congestive heart failure caused by the chemo, or leukemia caused by the radiation. Or getting hit by a bus, I suppose.
My own breast cancer was caught as early as it could have been. I had had a normal mammogram at 35 and felt myself up on a fairly regular basis. Nevertheless, one day while I was, lalala, merrily exfoliating in the shower, I felt a lump in my right breast. A big one, rock hard too, and when I tried to push it out of the way, I found that it held the surrounding skin and breast tissue firmly in place. Without relaying all the sordid details, let’s just say that I had a bad feeling about it. And so, I did not delay. Within a week, I had been seen by my OB/GYN, who sent me to a radiologist, who ultrasounded my breasts and found not one lump, but two, and took samples from them with a needle as I lay on the table. He looked at the samples under the microscope while I waited, tears rolling out of my eyes and into my ears.
“Suspicious”, he announced grimly.
“Does that mean cancer?” I quivered.
“Uh. Yes. It does.”
Within six weeks of first finding the lump, it had been removed from my body, along with 18 lymph nodes and two other lumps, one of which was neither palpable nor visible; it was discovered only because I had had both of my breasts removed and dissected.
My surgeon called me a week later with the news that, yay, my cancer was early stage! And by the way, three of the 18 lymph nodes contained cancerous cells.
Excuse me? Early stage but IN the lymph nodes? How could that be?
Well, it be.
You see, “early stage” breast cancer includes everything up to Stage 2B. One guess as to my cancer’s stage. Right. Stage 2B, which means that the tumor is bigger than an inch but smaller than a lime, and up to three lymph nodes contain cancerous cells. One more lymph node, and I would have been Stage 3, which is not a death sentence, although it is not considered “early stage”. Stage 4 is what they call a cancer that has “come back”, even if it was Stage 1 when it was first diagnosed. (Stage 4 can also be the initial diagnosis – when the cancer is found in organs and/or lymph nodes outside the breast and armpit.)
Now, I don’t doubt that some cancers can be said to be truly non-life-threatening, such as a basal cell skin cancer or even a melanoma, provided that it has not invaded the deeper layers of skin or beyond. But beyond those, I cannot think of any form of cancer that comes with a “non-life-threatening” guarantee. Even the seemingly “curable” cancers (early stage prostate cancer, for example, and certain types of testicular cancers) are life-threatening because they can come back. That’s what follow-up visits with the surgical or medical oncologist are for. And for many cancer survivors, the follow-up visits continue on a once or twice per year basis for as many as five years.
In the case of a breast cancer survivor, they continue far longer. Why? Because beast cancer is uniquely sinister in (at least) two notable ways:
1. Breast cancer has been known to “come back” (bringing the patient to Stage 4, with no stops in between) even in those whose disease was caught in the “early stage”, including Stages 0 (no invasive disease) and 1 (small tumor; no lymph node involvement).
2. A recurrence of breast cancer can happen any time, even, say, 20 years after the initial diagnosis, especially , my oncologist told me, 20 years after the initial diagnosis (why “20” is the magic number here is something I cannot even begin to understand). This, notwithstanding an initial diagnosis of “early stage”.
So, yeah, I am totally jealous of Christina Applegate because, apparently, her publicist has diagnosed her with the awesome kind of breast cancer that is NOT life threatening, when I had to go and get the other kind of breast cancer. You know…the kind that has a really good prognosis when caught early and treated aggressively, albeit with no guarantees. The kind that forces you to realize that being bald from chemo is not embarrassing but totally cool (even if, like me, you would never appear in public without your wig) since most people will be awe-filled and tell you that they don’t think they could have done what you’ve done, even though you secretly know that they could have and would have if faced with a …LIFE-THREATENING illness. The kind that makes you realize that although the scars on your chest may not be “sexy”, exactly, they do mark you as lucky and blessed to have survived a…all together now … a LIFE-THREATENING illness.
Now, in all seriousness, I am sending my best wishes and heartfelt prayers to Christina Applegate. Be well, Christina, and be brave.
And be happy that your publicist is not your doctor.