The Cancer gods are at it again. This time, they want the sacrifice of the ovaries. I am ready to give up some more.
Here is why….
My breast cancer had been categorized as “ER PR positive”. This means that the cancer cells when assessed revealed that they have receptors for Estrogen and Progesterone, the female hormones. This is generally good news because it is normal for breast cells to have those receptors. It also means that the cancer cells are not severely mutated and different from the original cell that they evolved from. These are therefore considered less aggressive tumors than the ones that are called “Triple Negative ” cancers. The term triple negative means that they lack three kind of receptors the cancer cells were evaluated for. Women with triple negative cancers don’t have any “pill” treatment option for them.Their treatment is surgery, chemotherapy and radiation.
The three kind of receptors are the Estrogen and Progesterone receptors and HER-2 receptors. Why is this important to know?
It is because the cells have mutated so much that they don’t look much like the cell they started out as. The silver lining of triple negative cancers is that they respond very well to chemotherapy and many a times when the patient takes chemotherapy before surgery, the tumor actually disappears from the image of mammogram or MRI.
Some patients are ER PR negative (they don’t have those receptors) but HER-2 positive. This used to be bad news until the advent of a drug by the name of Herceptin that actually improves the survival rate to the point that it is similar to those without the HER-2 receptor.
So there are so many variations and differences from one patient to another with breast cancer just on the basis of cell’s receptor status, never mind that stage and pathology.
Being a physician, what I clearly understand is that female hormones are bad for me. They will feed any lingering cancer cell in my body and stimulate its growth. So ideally my body should be free of female hormones.
I am on a medicine called Tamoxifen which is standard treatment for women who have not had menopause and have had ER PR positive breast cancer. The job of Tamoxifen is to find Estrogen receptors in the body and stop estrogen from acting on them.
The result is menopause like symptoms. Not very fun in early 40s. In winter when I am bundled up in a down coat and multiple winter accessories and driving, I could have a “summer attack” that could compel me to pull over and literally strip in my car. I have stopped wearing warmer sweaters since I might get a hot flash and then will have a hard time cooling down. I cannot wear a warmer shirt to bed or I will wake up without it have taken it off due to the heat in the middle of the night. So my thermoregulation is very temperamental. This is expected. I didn’t expect it at my age, but then oh well I didn’t expect a brush with death at my age either.
Being a young woman, it is unclear whether I am in menopause or not. Here is why…Chemotherapies are very harsh treatments, so harsh that they literally stun the ovaries and they freeze. The ovaries literally go “What the hell happened!” and most women will stop having menstrual cycles shortly after first or second chemotherapy. Very young women will likely have return of their periods after a year or so of chemotherapy.
My last period was Sept, 2013. Age wise I sit on the cusp of young and not so young woman. My mom was in her 50s when she had her menopause. So as of today, no doctor can tell me whether I am in menopause or not.
So are the scary female hormones, the ones that are supposed to feed the cancer still running around in my body? May be? Is the Tamoxifen helping, perhaps, it has good data supporting increased survival.
So the question arises, how can I be sure that the “evil” female hormones are completely gone? Yes, that’s correct, get the freaking ovaries out. This means an additional surgery.
Then, why didn’t I do it as soon as I was diagnosed with this cancer?
In the medical world, recommendations for elective or prophylactic surgeries are usually based on data. Doctors love data, they love studies, information that will help them predict odds of success of a certain intervention.Surgery is intervention and therefore must be justified.
I was waiting for December. Every December there is a national Breast Cancer Symposium in San Antonio where cutting edge research is presented. One of the studies that was scheduled to be present was the “SOFT” trail ( Suppression of ovaries Function Trail ). This would be the data that would convince me that I need to get my ovaries removed.
The results presented showed improved in survival for women who had ovarian suppression ( either by getting them removed surgically or taking shots that will suppress the working of the ovaries) and took a medicine exemestane ( reserved only for women who are in menopause for sure) had better survival that those that didn’t have ovarian suppression and took tamoxifen, that would be someone like me.
I want to live. I want to do as much as I can to reduce any chances of a recurrence. I also know that I have no control. The roulette is spinning. Anything that will improve survival, I will do.
Such is a life touched by cancer, you sign up willingly for surgeries, medications full of dastardly side effects, just to seek reassurance that nothing actually will provide but the quest continues.
I am waiting for a call to schedule, yet another surgery.