Looking Ahead With Advanced Breast Cancer
I always knew I was supposed to do regular breast self-exams to check for any signs of breast cancer, but I never knew what I was feeling for exactly. However, at the end of July 2013, I quickly learned. One evening, after I got home from work, I changed out of my work clothes and felt something I’d never felt before—a lump in my left breast. I asked my now-husband, Ricardo, to feel it, and he said it felt like a marble. I knew in my gut something was definitely off.
I scheduled a mammogram and got my results back a week later—everything looked normal. But my gut told me it wasn’t. I asked for more tests, and eventually had an ultrasound, biopsy, and PET scan, which looks at cell activity.
After the ultrasound, I had already been told that I had stage 2 breast cancer. However, the evening after the PET scan, the breast surgeon called me from her cell phone at 6pm and I knew it wouldn’t be good news. It was a beautiful August day and I was outside with our dog; I picked up the phone and the doctor said it was stage 4 breast cancer and it had spread to my liver and bones. After that, I don’t remember anything—my brain went blank and I couldn’t hear anything else she said. Ricardo asked me what was going on, but I couldn’t answer him, so he called her right back. She explained everything to him. Together, we sat there and cried. I tried to accept the fact that it was stage 4 breast cancer. I was stunned.
That night, Ricardo told me he wanted to get married.
We met with the oncologist a day or two later, and he told me that I had six months to live, maybe a year. Right after that appointment, Ricardo and I went to the mall. Together, in a daze, we bought our rings, he got a new suit, and I picked out a simple dress. We got married 3 days later.
The wedding was beautiful, but full of emotions. We didn’t know what the future held for us.
We immediately started looking for a second opinion. The second doctor I saw told me the same thing and gave me the same treatment plan as the first oncologist. My gut told me that this wasn’t the right doctor, either. I was looking for someone who would treat me as a whole person—I wanted nutritional advice and emotional support. But I felt stuck. I set up an appointment to start chemotherapy at the second hospital, but I knew I didn’t want to go there. Ricardo knew I was uncertain with the two opinions we were given and one afternoon he called me at work and said he’d set up a meeting with a doctor at another hospital. I’m so grateful he took that step. At our appointment, I asked the oncologist, Dr. Tlemcani (Dr. T) how long she thought I had to live, and she said, “I can’t tell you that—that’s out of our control.” The team was wonderful. We hit it off and I knew I was in the right place.
Dr. T told me my breast cancer was classified as hormone receptor-positive and HER2-negative. That means the cancer grows with help from hormones like estrogen and progesterone, making it hormone receptor-positive (HR-positive), but it doesn’t use a gene called human epidermal growth factor receptor 2 (HER2), making it HER2-negative. My oncologist told me my type of cancer responds really well to targeted treatments, so I felt optimistic.
Before targeted treatments, though, I underwent 14 rounds of chemo. I reacted strangely to the chemo—whereas most people feel fatigued and sick, I felt energized, if a bit crabby for the first two days after infusion. I’d go home after chemo and mow the lawn; my neighbors thought I was insane. But I’d made the decision not to let cancer define me. I wasn’t going to let it slow me down. And I had the energy, so I went on living my life.
However, in May of 2014, Dr. T told me my tumors weren’t growing, but they weren’t shrinking either. It was time for targeted hormone therapy. I fully trusted her—I knew she had my best interest at heart. I started on a common targeted therapy, but after taking it for six months, I was feeling really lethargic and achy. Plus, we noticed I was developing fatty liver disease as a result of the drug—too much fat was accumulating in my liver, which can cause serious problems. She switched me to another drug, which worked really well, even though I was still lethargic and achy. At times, I felt like I was 200 years old. But my tumors were shrinking—it was worth it.
Last August, I went in for my three-month scan like usual, but this time it showed some brighter activity in tumors in my liver. We decided to put me on a new course of drugs that were recently approved. Now, I take a pill every day for three weeks with one week off, and get a monthly injection. I made great progress, even though I eventually needed radiofrequency ablation (RFA) in my liver, which destroys tumors with heat. But here’s the amazing thing: after the RFA, I got new PET scans done. The doctor showed me my old PET scans, before the RFA, and the two tumors remaining in my liver looked like a bright orange fireball. Then he showed me the new scan: there was nothing on it. I was excited there was no more cancer activity in my liver—the RFA had worked! But the doctor clarified, telling me there was no cancer activity anywhere. The RFA had stopped the cancer activity in my liver, and the targeted treatments had worked throughout the rest of my body. I couldn’t believe I had no evidence of cancer.
I called Ricardo immediately, but I didn’t want to shout it from the rooftops for everyone to hear just yet. I was afraid the orange fireball might return. But I just had scans two weeks ago and there’s still no cancerous activity. Now, we’re just ecstatic.
In some ways, I’m thankful I had cancer. I look at life so differently now and I’m grateful for everything. This seems like the path I was supposed to take; I feel I’m here to help others in my position, to show them there’s hope and they can be strong. Cancer is not a death sentence anymore—there are so many different treatments and new ones coming out every day. The drug I’m taking now wasn’t even available when I was first diagnosed. I feel very blessed and I’m just riding this wave as long as I can. I tell my doctor every time I see her that she’s got me for another 40 years. She’s more than fine with that.
I want other people to know how important it is to trust your gut and get a second opinion. It can be exhausting and overwhelming, but get as many opinions as you need until it feels right. This is your life. Of course, it’s not convenient to travel and find all these doctors, but cancer isn’t convenient either. Make sure your diet is great, keep breathing, keep laughing, keep living and take it one day at a time.
Jennifer Lopez lives in Lansing, Michigan with her husband, Ricardo, and their dog, Einstein.