Editor's note: This is the first of a two-part series on metastatic cancer. Part two focuses on the biology of metastasis — and what researchers don’t yet understand.
The women started comparing side effects as soon as the elevator doors closed behind them on the top floor of the Public Health Sciences building.
Beth Caldwell, currently taking an oral chemo drug, talked about her horrible fatigue, neuropathy and hand-foot syndrome.
“I have hillbilly feet,” the 39-year-old joked. “They always look dirty now. And every time I take a shower, chunks of skin come off. It’s super gross.”
Michelle Gherardi, a 48-year-old Seattle filmmaker who takes the same drug, Xeloda, gets severe body pain, enough that it’s sent her to the ER. Retired Bellevue fire captain Jeanette Woldseth was only able to take Xeloda for four days before she started having coronary artery spasms and had to stop.
The women, all metastatic breast cancer patients, came to Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center recently to meet with translational researcher Dr. Kevin Cheung and talk about the disease they’re all trying to eradicate.
Unable to find a sitter, Caldwell brought along her daughter, Maggie. After a brief lab tour, the 4-year-old perched on her mother’s lap in Cheung’s office, learning her ABCs on a video game while her mom and the three other women calmly discussed the disease that’s slowly killing them. This surreal mix of life, death and science is nothing new for the women — or for Cheung, a breast cancer oncologist. Since being diagnosed with MBC, the women’s lives have become a strange jumble of pain and patient advocacy, parenting and oncology appointments, social media and their own looming mortality.
But despite the fact that MBC kills 40,000 women (and men) every year, they’re not despondent. Rather, they’re encouraged by recent advances in immunotherapy and targeted treatments, and new initiatives calling for data sharing and a substantial increase in cancer research funding.
“I feel like this is the year,” Caldwell said. “I think the vice president is right. We are at this inflection point. There’s the cancer moonshot. And doctors are talking to each other across clinics now in a way they didn’t use to. And the 'metsters' are no longer being ignored. We’re forcing ourselves in. Before, we just laid down and died. Now, we’re lying down and having ‘die-ins.'”