When I was diagnosed with early stage breast cancer in the spring of 2008, I looked upon it as a bump in the road. A self-employed OB-GYN with a busy practice and a nine year old daughter, I chose a bilateral mastectomy (no time for the radiation therapy that would be needed after a lumpectomy, I had patients to see and a kid to drive to soccer practice) and immediate implant reconstruction (a TRAM flap with its bonus tummy tuck would have been nice, but had to get back to work ASAP, and recovery from implant reconstruction was much faster). Even the four months of i.v. chemo needed because of one positive lymph node didn’t slow me down: I scheduled chemo for Thursdays, did surgery on my patients on Fridays, threw up on Saturdays, ached from Neulasta® on Sundays, and was back in the office on Monday. Breast cancer – been there, done that, got the pink T-shirt, now time to move on.
And I moved on. My practice grew, my daughter joined a travel soccer team (now there were four hour drives to tournaments) and went to acting camps in Los Angeles and entered high school (twice a year plays with rehearsals until 11 p.m. and too young to drive!) and I didn’t give breast cancer a second thought. Even when I developed back pain in 2013 I thought I had pulled a muscle. When it didn’t improve with ice, and massage, and chiropractic adjustments, I thought that maybe I had herniated a disc. I never, not once, thought the pain could be related to that little breast cancer I had had five years earlier.
Ironically, one day a week I sub-leased my office to an oncologist. He saw me limping and questioned why. “Oh, I thought I pulled a muscle, but now I think I might have a herniated disc”, was my cavalier response. He reminded me that I had had breast cancer and suggested that scans were probably a good idea. They were, but I was busy and didn’t want to reschedule patients for a silly herniated disc, so I put off those scans. I looked at the schedule and six weeks out there was a day when there was only a couple of patients already scheduled – November 14th. My birthday. I figured I have an MRI and, heck, a PET scan while I was at it, because I could, and then I’d take the rest of the day off and go shopping, maybe get a pedicure. Dinner with the family afterward would round out a great birthday.
The shopping never happened. The pedicure appointment was missed. I don’t even remember if we had dinner, for the scans showed that the back pain was due to a vertebra fractured by metastatic breast cancer and there were metastatic lesions from skull to femur and every bone in between. I had forgotten about cancer, but it hadn’t forgotten about me. I was in the oncologist’s office within two hours, and my orthopedic surgeon friend was scheduling me for placement of a titanium rod in my about-to-break femur: “Don’t trip”, he said.
The day after my diagnosis was the last time I picked up a scalpel. Six days after diagnosis I was on the operating table, instead of being gowned and gloved next to it. Ten days after that I began what ultimately was 14 months of i.v. chemo. By Christmas I was bald.
But I’ve been lucky: I have had no evidence of active disease (NEAD) since April 2014. In November 2017 I will celebrate my birthday – and my 4th “metaversary” living with a disease with a median life expectancy of three years. I have celebrated my 20th wedding anniversary. I have seen my daughter graduate from high school. And if I remain lucky, if research allows, I hope to be there for that college graduation in 2020.
Metastatic breast cancer stole my career, and one day it will steal my life. But through this horrible diagnosis, I was introduced to amazing women and men who showed me that I could still help others and make a difference through advocacy. I went to conferences, I raised money for metastatic specific research, I used my voice to demand more for those of us with stage IV, the forgotten ones in the sea of pink that surrounds breast cancer. My mantra became “Research, not Ribbons”.
I found out about the Department of Defense Breast Cancer Research Program and the role of the consumer reviewer. I applied, and was accepted, joining my first panel in January 2017. I am able to use my scientific background and medical training once again, in reading grant proposals. I have a seat at the table with brilliant scientist-reviewers, who listen to what I – and other consumer reviewers – have to say. I am useful again.
My name is Kelly Shanahan. I am a wife, a mother, a daughter, a doctor, a woman LIVING with metastatic breast cancer. I am an advocate.
Last updated Friday, November 3, 2017