What It's Like to Live With Stage IV Breast Cancer
A 32-year-old woman shares her experience living with metastatic (stage IV) breast cancer.
In the summer of 2011, when she was 26 years old, Canadian Judit Saunders was working her dream job. She was a registered nurse in pediatrics at a major children's hospital in Calgary in Alberta, Canada. She was engaged to her now-husband, Chris Saunders, a firefighter.
Then one day she found a lump. "I'm ashamed to admit it, but I put off getting it checked out," Saunders says. "I thought, 'Oh, I'm sure it's a cyst. I don't have time right now.' We make time for pretty much everything in our lives, and we put our health on the back burner assuming that we're always going to have it."
When she went in for a biopsy, she found out it was hormonally driven HER2-positive breast cancer. "At the time I went through the standard care treatments that included chemotherapy, mastectomy, and radiation," Saunders says. After beating it, all she wanted—as many people do—was to move on.
Then, two-and-a-half years later, it came back as stage IV breast cancer—also called metastatic or advanced—which meant it had spread to other parts of her body. "I started to get really bad chest pain and I then found out that my cancer had reoccurred," she says. "It had come back in my bones so it was in my sternum, my hip, my rib, my spine. A few months later it also spread to my brain."
For Saunders and her husband, her diagnosis was heartbreaking. "Your entire future is suddenly over," she says. "I had to stop working. You lose pretty much everything you identify yourself with. You're stripped to your core."
It's now been four years since Saunders first found out her cancer had metastasized. She's in treatment for life, but she hasn't let the disease stop her from living. "When I think back to my life pre-cancer, I'd plan vacations months in advance," she says. "Now, if my scans are good, my husband and I are like, 'OK, let's book something right now.' We see life in a different light. We enjoy right now." She's quick to mention, though, that there are plenty of days that she's not feeling up to being active—which is the experience of many women with stage IV.
Beyond taking care of herself, Saunders is passionate about spreading awareness of metastatic breast cancer (MBC) in particular, as most of the awareness around breast cancer focuses on those with early stage. She posts regularly on her Facebook, blog, and Twitter account about her own experience (as well as others') with MBC, creating a community for other women with the disease. She's also recently become the co-chair of the Metastatic Breast Cancer Advisory Board, which advocates for increasing drug access to life extending therapies and more public education about MBC (among other things), and is a part of the Canadian organization Rethink Breast Cancer. She, as well as many women with metastatic breast cancer, doesn't feel represented by the pink ribbon movement.
"We just want funds toward research," she says. "We want to live long enough to reach the next milestone, whether it's in our life or for people to see their young children start school. It's just a very different life compared to an early stage diagnosis. Having had both, I've definitely learned that."