To mark Breast Cancer Awareness Month, we are reconnecting with two Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center patients to talk about their experience living with breast cancer. What is life like after diagnosis? What advice do they have to share?
Leah Marcoe, 37, began treatment just as the world was heading into lockdown in March 2020. Her physicians gave her the green light last year to pause her medication and try to get pregnant; she now has a three-month-old son, Francis.
Since 2013, Maria Pearson has been living with metastatic breast cancer that had spread to her bones and liver when she was diagnosed at age 47.
Marcoe and Pearson talk about how they've coped with their diagnosis and how their lives have changed.
Leah Marcoe’s treatment consisted of chemotherapy, a lumpectomy and radiation. She got pregnant in September 2022, a few months after she paused medication designed to control her body's production of estrogen.
She had considered freezing her eggs when she was diagnosed, but she chose not to proceed because of the cost; she is a kindergarten teacher at a Catholic school and her insurance wouldn’t cover the procedure.
“We gambled to see what would happen and fortunately that gamble paid off,” she said.
At home on maternity leave, Marcoe talked about her experience being diagnosed with cancer and stopping treatment to conceive.
What was it like to be diagnosed and treated for cancer in your 30s?
It was definitely a shock. I'm adopted so I don’t know my family history. I did genetic testing to help see what type of surgery would be best — a mastectomy versus a lumpectomy depending on if I had a mutation. The genetic testing came back negative so I had a lumpectomy, which was easier on my body.
Another thing that I noticed is that I didn’t know anyone who had gone through this. That piece was difficult because I didn’t have anyone to talk to.
What advice do you have for other young women who get this diagnosis?
Try to still have some normalcy in your life, like getting together with friends. One thing I did after treatment is I treated my boyfriend and myself to a fun dinner, so it was something to look forward to even if I didn’t have an appetite.
Also, stay active even though that can be hard. My joints hurt, but it was nice to move and have some activity.
How do you move ahead with your life without worrying too much about the cancer coming back?
It’s always looming in my head that it could come back. I remind myself that research and medications are constantly developing and helping so many more people survive that there doesn’t seem to be as much of a death toll as there used to because there’s so much research, data and medical advancement.
If I were to be diagnosed again, there will be more options so I try not to stress out because I don’t want to live in fear. I continue to live my everyday life and put my cancer experience in context: it happened and it was scary and I overcame it and I just kind of need to keep going.
Was there anything that surprised you about treatment?
I embraced the baldness, which was kind of a shock to me. My biggest fear was losing my hair. I pushed myself and got an edgy cool cut to ease my way into it. I embraced it and had fun with it.
I was completely bald. I didn't wear anything to cover my head. That surprised me especially because that had been a fear for me. Then I got peach fuzz, then I got a curly-ish fro. It was fun to see the different stages. I still have chemo curls even though my hair was pretty straight before.
When will you resume treatment?
June 24, which is two years since I stopped treatment.
How do you feel about Breast Cancer Awareness Month?
It brings a lot of awareness, but my problem is with companies that do pinkwashing, going along with the hype of Breast Cancer Awareness Month but not actually doing anything. They just want people to buy the products.
Maria Pearson’s treatment has evolved in the decade since she was first diagnosed with metastatic cancer. Recently, her treatment regimen stopped working, so she switched from oral chemotherapy to infusion chemo of a different drug and added a course of radiation to her right breast.
How do you deal with changes in your treatment plan?
I'm feeling good about it and expecting it will work because it worked so well last time. I didn't really have side effects. Some days I had to come home and nap but I kind of sailed through for the most part.
I’ve learned through this process that when I feel good, my attitude and outlook are good and my faith is very strong. When I feel bad, I sink down into a scary doubtful place. Since I've been at this so long, part of me is like, ‘Pull yourself up and get through it and it will be fine.’ But there is also part of me that thinks, ‘It’s been 10 years, is this it? Is this the setback that is going to get me?’ We don’t know how much time any of us has. I have dark thoughts, but when I feel better, it gives me new hope.
How did you react to your diagnosis?
In the beginning, I couldn’t get it off my mind. When I started getting better and the medications started working, I started coming out of that. I remember thinking, ‘Hey, today I didn’t think about cancer all day.’
I still work on trying not to compare myself to others who don’t have cancer. Sometimes I find myself saying, ‘I wish I was that person because they don’t have cancer.’ I know lots of people who’ve had chemo and radiation and don’t have to go back to the doctor. They're done. But I’m in the category of being in treatment every three weeks for the past 10 years.
What advice do you have for others with metastatic cancer?
Go easy on yourself. Those days will come where you accept it as part but not all of your life. Remember that you have lots of good cells in you still working and fighting and they can partner up with the medications and therapies you choose.
Also, do things that make you happy. I would come home back to my life in eastern Washington on my ranch and continue doing what makes me happy: walking my dog, barrel racing, working in the garden and tapping my faith in God.
Life has a way of pushing us back into dark caves and holding us there. So it’s important to me to have faith to pull me out of that.
What’s your take on Breast Cancer Awareness Month?
Since I live with breast cancer, I don’t give it a lot more thought from one month to the next. I’m glad they have a particular time to focus on it, but at the same time, living with breast cancer happens all the time for me. I have awareness all the time.
I think a lot about women getting their first diagnosis because I remember what that was like. When I was first diagnosed, I spent all my time on survivor stories. Survivor story after survivor story. I’m not one to go to support groups, but I did post in a Facebook support group that I was diagnosed with stage 4 metastatic cancer 10 years ago. I got 8,000 or 9,000 likes. People thanked me for sharing that.
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Bonnie Rochman is a staff writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center. A former health and parenting writer for Time, she has written a popular science book about genetics, "The Gene Machine: How Genetic Technologies Are Changing the Way We Have Kids—and the Kids We Have." Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.