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Opinion

Living After Metastatic Cancer Diagnosis

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The cold statistic is that an estimated quarter-million Americans are living with metastatic breast cancer. But it’s more than just a cold statistic to me, because I am one of them.

Many of us have been touched by cancer in one way or another, through family, friends or coworkers. I have had the misfortune of being close to cancer throughout my life: My grandfather died of stomach cancer, my father is a lung cancer survivor and my mother is a breast cancer survivor. If that wasn’t enough, 16 years ago I lost my husband, my soul mate and my best friend to metastatic melanoma.

Cancer, it seems, has ruled my life.

As a long-time volunteer with the American Cancer Society, I thought I knew all there was to know about this terrible disease, until I received my diagnosis in 2010. I was terrified, as if I had become the main character in a horror story my own body had created.

About 30 percent of women diagnosed with early breast cancer eventually progress to the metastatic stage, and I found myself a reluctant part of that group. I had two young daughters to raise, and after the death of my husband I knew I was the only one they could rely on. I had to think clearly, carefully, completely about what this diagnosis meant for myself, and for my family.

Adding to the challenge of this difficult time was how much I had to hunt for information in the media about my disease and the best ways to cope. We simply don’t hear much about metastatic breast cancer in the news.

Sure, October is filled with pink ribbons and information about early breast cancer detection, preventative screening, survivor stories and community support. But there is an entire segment within the breast cancer community that is unspoken for.

Metastatic breast cancer is the most advanced stage of breast cancer. At this stage the cancer has spread beyond the breast to other organs in the body (in my case, the cancer spread to my lymph nodes). It remains an incurable condition and is the second leading cause of cancer death among women today.

With only a three-year survival expectancy, I am part of a community of women and men who remain in treatment, despite the odds. Our diagnosis may mean we have a limited life expectancy, but it does NOT mean we can no longer have a life – even if for a shorter time. And that is my message to everyone facing metastatic breast cancer.

One of the most difficult truths about living with an incurable disease is that it’s not just the physical pain that hurts so much.

Living and coping with daily life requires a determination of will, a commitment to carrying on with your life and not giving in to the disease. Life after diagnosis is entirely dependent on what you choose to do with yourself, and it helps to have the right kind of support.

I want people to know that I and many others understand what they’re going through – and support is out there. Palliative care has helped me rebuild my life so I can get the most out of my remaining time with my daughters, friends and loved ones. You can, too.

Palliative care is about the reconstruction of the individual, filling in all those spaces that, alone, mere treatment to survive cannot address. It really is possible to find your way back to being whole again.

I encourage everyone facing a diagnosis of metastatic breast cancer to recognize that their life has not ended. I do not know, and cannot control, what my future holds. But I do have control over my present, and I intend to make the most of it.

Bibiana Salmon currently lives in Doral, Florida. A mother of two and a real estate professional, she actively advocates for cancer awareness and education through the American Cancer Society and the American Cancer Society-Cancer Action Network.