Thursday, October 13, 2011

Day 525: Pink This! October and Triple Negative Breast Cancer

I've decided that if I'm going to write any more blogs this month, it's going to be to provide a perspective that's different from the bombardment of pink that anyone fighting breast cancer confronts in October. Because, really, we are all very aware of breast cancer. And we are aware that others are aware of it, and yet, all of the marketing, the selling of pink products, and the hype has not fundamentally changed the reality of what it means to have breast cancer.

In another blog, I'll write about how the pink teddy bears obscure the grim reaper, how women who are dying of breast cancer or are coping with metastatic disease are often left out of the stories of hope and inspiration. Pink culture makes a hierarchy of breast cancer survivors, of which "survivor" is a crucial moniker, along with the "positive attitude" and "inspirational lives" that we are all supposed to be leading. I will write more about that later, and about how there is no bravery or inspiration inherent in this fight to save the life you didn't even know was in jeopardy. Today, I'm going to write a little bit about what it means to have triple negative breast cancer, to literally be the poor redheaded stepchild in this whole breast cancer family.

Statistics can be shocking things. As a person who does research for a living, I am fond of them, and yet I know that they can be manipulated, and that they might mean little to the individuals represented by the numbers. But I think they are quite worthwhile when trying to open up the conversation about breast cancer, a disease that people often lump (pun intended) into one group when it is in fact several diseases, maybe dozens.

Statistics have not been on my side with breast cancer. Only 2% of women with breast cancer are diagnosed under age 35. Check. Approximately 15% of breast cancers present as triple negative, meaning they are not receptive to estrogen, progesterone, or HER-2 (and meaning that there are no specific maintenance medications or specified treatments for those cancers). Check. About 10% of breast cancers are multifocal (more than one tumor present, originating from the index tumor). Check. And I'm sure there is some miniscule number of women who are diagnosed with breast cancer while lactating. Check.

Why am I bringing this up? Well, when I found out I was triple negative, it didn't mean much to me. As I learned that my cancer was the most aggressive kind of invasive ductal carcinoma, I tried to ignore the articles on the internet that told me "women with triple negative breast cancer often have poor prognosis." My medical team did not mention my triple negative status very much when describing my treatment plan. They didn't want to talk to me about prognosis at all. Once I knew I was stage one, that was considered very positive, especially when the second surgery cleared my margins. My gruff oncologist told me that I would need to be watched closely for a long time, because I was young and he expected me to live to be old, and therefore I had a long time for my cancer to come back.

That might be true for most breast cancers. But the reality is that there is a high incidence of recurrence, even for early stage cancer, for triple negatives, in the first three years. Likelihood of recurrence starts to fall off at that point and becomes almost nonexistent after eight years (estrogen positive cancers have been known to recur 15 or even 30 years later). I was also told that I should be extremely glad that I was not BRCA positive; everyone was pretty surprised about this, as there's a strong link between being triple negative and have the BRCA mutation, especially if you are diagnosed at a very young age. But here is another statistic. The American Cancer Society puts the five year survival rate for women with stage one cancers of all types at 88%. Mind you, that means that more than one in ten women with early stage breast cancer that did not spread to their lymph nodes will die from cancer within five years.

It gets more interesting, though. A recent study compared triple negative women with the BRCA mutation to those who did not have it. Of those who DID have the mutation, the probability of going five years without recurrence was 87%, and the probability of living five years was 73.3% (those numbers seem backwards to me, but it shows that recurrence is not a requirement for breast cancer to kill you). For those "lucky" triple negative women WITHOUT the gene, those percentages dropped to 52% and 53% respectively.

You read that right. Now, the study included women with all stages of cancer, not just early stage. Still, those statistics are telling me that, just like the movie title says, I have a 50-50 chance of making it to my 40th birthday due to the aggressive nature of the type of cancer I was unlucky enough to have. The statistics are also telling me that being BRCA negative is actually a bad thing for women with triple negative breast cancer. This implies that our cancers are feeding on something else entirely, and no one knows what it is. At stage one, almost everyone I encounter assumes I am fine now, I fought off the beast, I will live. But knowing what I have just told you, how would you like those odds?

For years, we have known that black women have a much worse mortality rate for breast cancer. It had been hypothesized that this was due to socioeconomic factors or access to healthcare and screenings. Today, many researchers believe that it is actually because black women are so much more likely to be triple-negative. Because triple negative cancers are often of the highest, most dangerous grade (surprisingly, two of my tumors were only grade 2 on the 1-3 scale, while my one non-invasive, DCIS tumor was grade 3) and are often also of the frightening "basal-like" cell type, they are less understood and much more insidious. They are likely to occur in young women, who are in turn unlikely to receive routine mammograms. They often are caught in late stage and are resistant to many treatments.

Moreover, when thinking about how breast cancers grow, most doctors look at an average. I was told my cancer had been growing for approximately 3-5 years. And yet it seemed to pop up out of nowhere. I have talked to triple negative women who have seen their cancers double in size in the month's time they were waiting for surgery. Many triple negative women can almost feel their tumors growing, but we are told that is impossible. I think it is entirely possible that I had cancer for a year at most, doctors be damned. We are also lumped in with other survivors when told how to manage our cancer. Yes, we can eat tofu, and no, we don't "have" to take tamoxifen, but we are still told to limit alcohol intake, exercise, and eat well. (Shouldn't everyone do those things without feeling like a guilty moment of excess will lead them to an early grave?). However, diet, drink, and overweight are risk factors for ESTROGEN POSITIVE breast cancer. There is evidence that extremely high BMI for post-menopausal women (BMI over 35) is a risk factor for triple negative breast cancer, but no real evidence of "lifestyle" factors that significantly affect triple negative disease exists. After all, I was nursing a baby, hanging out with a BMI around 19, when I was diagnosed.

Much of what everyone knows about breast cancer is largely irrelevant for triple negative cancers. Rumors and misinformation abound. A co-worker whom I recently met who is a 2-year triple negative breast cancer survivor suffering from a recent case of lymphedema was told by her doctor that only black women get the disease. A coworker of Gabe's was told by a friend it was good she was diagnosed now, not seven years ago when she dealt with her triple negative cancer, because her doctors told her to write her will and get her affairs in order.

How much pink goes towards figuring out what the hell is going on here? I was an active, skinny non-drinker nursing a baby when this thing came on. STOP focusing on supposed lifestyle factors, researchers. Something else is going on, something in the environment, or something related to pregnancy, or testosterone levels, but breast cancer is not about being an overweight inactive person. If the pill is a lifestyle factor, I am all for studying that one, since the link to triple negative seems highly relevant. But how much interest do we have as a society in discouraging women from taking the pill? How likely are we to start researching invasive birth control methods for men, or getting over our notion of spontaneity and firmly pushing barrier-based methods? This is a society that cannot deal with women and sexuality, to the point where the only cancer vaccine that has ever been developed is being denied preteen girls because we don't want to think they will go and have sex. Guess who will be getting her Gardisil in a few years? That's right, Lenny. I would rather protect you from sexually transmitted diseases and cancer AND teach you to force guys to use a condom AND enjoy sex when you are ready for it AND respect yourself. You could go your whole life without having sex or start having it at age 14 and I would still love you and want you to live.

It is frustrating to realize that it seems that even with estrogen-positive cancer, the most common type, breast cancer is an entirely different animal for those under 40. For triple negative, the reality is worse. You are forced into extensive, harsh chemotherapy regardless of your stage. Some studies show that that chemo will be extraordinarily effective on your tumors...about 40% of the time. The chance for recurrence is great and misunderstood, and the risk factors are unknown.

When someone asks me if I am in remission, I have no idea what to say. I recently agreed to do a short radio spot about being a breast cancer survivor. The woman interviewing me asked me if I thought I was cancer-free. I have no idea, I said. I have to assume so, until I know otherwise. One of the ROW coaches passed on information on a commercial audition for GE for cancer survivors. One of the first questions was, have you been in remission for at least a year? But really, no breast cancer is truly in remission. It is a type of cancer that can always return. Triple negative is less likely to do so, and as I said, almost entirely unlikely to recur if you make it 8 or 10 years out. In the meantime, you live with that IF, no matter what you do.

I have been very tired recently, peeing all the time, sluggish. I probably have a cold, and my period is due soon, so it could be that too. I might worry about being pregnant if I ever let Gabe anywhere near me without a condom or if I thought it was possible to still get pregnant, despite my so-far regular periods. But I am not your average 36 year old woman with average concerns anymore. I had this thing called triple negative breast cancer, so I have these symptoms and I worry that cancer has spread to my liver. Triple negative is much more likely to spread to the soft tissues, such as the liver, lungs, and brain, than to the bones--which is a terrible fate for women who find they have metastatic disease, and yet is much more treatable in the short term.

Everyone reading this knows I am not a support group person. That is just part of my nature, but another reason for it in this instance is that I find breast cancer groups to be very frustrating, since most of the advice is not relevant for me. I read somewhere that having triple negative breast cancer is like being seated at a separate table at a restaurant, watching other people eat steak while you live on bread and water. And of course it's terrible for anyone to have breast cancer. Early stage triple negative cancer is infinitely preferable to late-stage anything else, but it still makes you feel like an outsider, even in the "club" you never wanted to join.

It is hard knowing that much of what has been gained in understanding breast cancer will not benefit me, even if that sounds selfish. The ACT chemo I did was not designed for triple negative, though taxanes are considered a must, albeit a damn toxic one. No maintenance meds, no real restrictions on pregnancy or birth control method, really a lot of nothing, for us triple negatives. It is better to be free to live my life, in some ways, but daunting too, as I count down these days and see if my aggressive form of cancer decides to morph into something else. This 50-50 thing can make a woman tired.

These are the things I think about when I see pink advertisements for used cars or find the "do this for the cure" taglines everywhere. Here is the reality of decades of pink. According to the American Cancer Society, the mortality rate for women from breast cancer is about 25 per 100,000 today. The rate in 1930?

25 per 100,000.

While they might not get as much hype, mortality rates for women for cervical, uterine, and stomach cancer have reached under 5 per 100,000, down from the high 20s and 30s around the depression. What has all that pink money achieved? How aware are people really, how much do any of us know about breast cancer? I had no idea that triple negative breast cancer existed, and it took me a long time to understand what it meant even when I was diagnosed. Shortly after I showed up to work bald, a ballsy co-worker asked me what kind of breast cancer I had. What do you mean, I asked. Well, you know, there's the breast cancer where you will most likely be fine, and then there's the kind that's really bad, where you don't live very long. Which do you have?

I have the bad kind, jackass. Can I offer you a pink beer to thank you for your support?

Now don't get me wrong, there is one aspect of the pink that even this triple negative girl loves. It gives people who care about you a way to show you, when they are at a loss and don't know what to say. I learned recently that an old friend and colleague I haven't seen in years wears a Komen ribbon for me on racing days and thinks of me and my struggles when he runs. It's always touching for me to learn that, especially touching, somehow, when men feel that way. Someone lives far from you and can't help you out, make you a meal, or watch your kids. Pink gives them something of you to share. It's meaningful, and the love is important.

But there is nothing to love about breast cancer. October was always my favorite month, though it marked one of the darkest times in my life, since I was hit by a car on October 11, 1984. Our October in Chicago this year has been phenomenally beautiful, warm and sunny. But pink culture in October just makes me want to say, how aware are you that as you sit talking to me, I am concerned, rightfully so, that I might not live to see my son enter kindergarten? What pink is there to wash that fear away? It is not paranoia, or a bad attitude, that makes me feel this way. It is the reality of breast cancer, after the pink has been laid bare.

This photograph of Lenny and me was taken on New Years in 2010, about four months before I was diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer. Can you tell that I had cancer then? Where is the cancer in this picture? You might not be able to see it, but it was there all the same, trying its damnedest to do me in. The fact that you can't see it in me today does not mean that it isn't there; the fact that I feel very healthy most of the time does not mean that I am cancer-free. That is the reality of living with an aggressive form of breast cancer. You might call it a downer, I would call it a dose of the truth. So to all the women with breast cancer who are told they look amazing, that they are beautiful and wonderful and talented and smart, I would like to say this: Yes, you are. But this October, I know all too well that you would rather be ugly, lazy, stupid, and useless if it meant you wouldn't have breast cancer. So, this un-pink blog's for you.


  1. Thanks for your honesty! I must admit I find all the commercialism around breast cancer in October very disturbing. It's also been very frustrating for me as I'm scheduled for a lumpectomy on Halloween and have had to deal with the fear of the unknown this entire month. How they can totally biospy the wrong spot using ultrasound I have no clue but I will glad to have this thing out of me no matter what it's composed of. Thanks again!

  2. I am glad to find your site. My mother was just diagnosed with the same cancer as you at the age of 65. What is on her side she is completely healthy minus cancer. What is concerning to me is we are being told chemo may or may not work on this kind of cancer. But she will have to have radiation.

  3. Wow I just stumbled on your site. I was diagnosed with TNBC in December 2010. I did
    chemo and radiation after a double masectomy.
    No reconstruction surgery either (love my prosthesis) Stay strong my fellow TNBC sister
    You totally summed up how I feel. Thank you for sharing your thoughts

  4. I also just stumbled on to your site. We have a lot in common. I'm 38, had stage 1 TNBC, BRCA negative, thin, fit, mother of two. I had a lumpectomy in July and have one more round of chemo before I undergo prophylactic mastectomies and then a hysterectomy. I'm interested to know what article you refer to for the 50-50 statistic?

  5. Ive been researching for my aunt. I don't know all her history with breast cancer but I do know she was first diagnosed about 20 years ago. She went into remission for 15 years. 5 years ago she went through round 2. Two months ago they found it again but this time, it's stage four. She is devastated. We are devastated. I was searching for info about triple negative and came to your post. So glad I did. Thanks for your blunt, honest words. I don't know about your treatment but I know that at the first occurrence of her cancer they removed one breast. At the time, my aunt requested both be removed. The surgeon refused. Two months ago the same surgeon who sliced and diced her again said "I should have removed both"...devastating. I tell you this not to say this is what your future is, but, only to say that I don't care how much you hate/like your oncologist, find another one and let them review everything. She took this mans word as law and regrets it. Most likely had both breasts been removed, she wouldn't be dealing with what she is today. She is having a last ditch consult at cancer treatment centers. Have you heard anything about them? Their commercials show incredibly miraculous recovery for people who are given death sentences.... just wondering. Thanks for your site. Your doing a good thing.