Nancy: Déjà Vu

My sister, and my best friend, died in 2002 at the age of 54 after a difficult seven-year fight with breast cancer. I was my sister’s support system during her journey and I thought I knew everything about breast cancer. Later, I learned I didn’t. Little did I know that chemo would leave me permanently bald.

My sister’s battle included high-dose chemotherapy and a stem cell transplant. Unlike me, she did not receive the chemotherapy drug, Taxotere, and her hair grew back after treatment. When she found a lump on her breast, her gynecologist, who had delivered both of her girls, said it was probably an infection and to watch it for a month or two to see if it disappeared. Her last mammogram was six months prior. Then she felt a lump under her arm. The rest is history—she was Stage III ER/PR+, Her2/Neu negative at diagnosis. Her recurrence happened at five years from diagnosis. She died an ugly, painful death. Her young daughters and I may have lost her, but she lost everything.

So when I was diagnosed at the age of 58 in 2004, I told my oncologist that I had already died of breast cancer two years before. I obviously was afraid of breast cancer and checked myself daily, but I never felt a lump. My sister and I are both educated women who took care of our health (ate right, exercised, stayed thin and had our mammograms/checkups every year). But all these things didn’t make a difference for us.

I didn’t feel well for a year before I was diagnosed. I had gone to the doctor repeatedly to find out what was wrong. My left breast really hurt, but I was told, “breast cancer doesn’t hurt.” I had my annual mammogram and breast exam just ten months prior to diagnosis. I developed a cold sore, for the first time in my life, about eight months prior to diagnosis. It just wouldn’t go away and spread into the roof of my mouth. I was treated with several rounds of anti-viral drugs.

I also had a basil cell lesion along the bra line of the breast with cancer that had to be excised. I even had a breast exam two months prior to diagnosis, but my internist didn’t find anything or send me on for further examinations. So you might guess that I am angry and also a little suspicious of everything touted regarding early detection and proactive awareness.  It didn’t help my sister and it didn’t make a difference for me.  One thing that certainly needs to change in medical school is for physicians to be taught that breast cancer is not one disease and that the symptoms vary.

The final trigger was when I woke up one morning and noticed that my left nipple was inverted. That’s when I was convinced I had breast cancer. Yet even with that symptom, they were still going to wait two weeks to do a needle biopsy since the ultrasound could only detect something very small. I called my prior gynecologist and she got the ball rolling. I had a biopsy, followed by a lumpectomy and a mastectomy. I was diagnosed Stage 3C, with 11 of 11 nodes positive, ER-/PR-. HER-2/Neu positive. I was told very bluntly that I had a lot of disease with a poor prognosis. I received dose-dense chemotherapy, including four rounds of Taxotere/Herceptin and 35 rounds of radiation.

When the breast cancer spread to my neck nodes, Tykerb was added to my protocol. Again, it took over six months to second diagnosis. My only symptom was the loss of my voice due to a paralyzed vocal cord. Eventually something was detected on PET. When my hair didn’t return after treatment, a number of oncologists and dermatologists told me that they hadn’t seen this happen before. I couldn’t find anything about it on the Internet. My physicians certainly didn’t seem to care or were very empathic. None of them said that Taxotere was the likely culprit.

I know better now. My current breast cancer oncologist immediately said to me on my first visit in 2008, “Permanent hair loss sometimes happens to women who take Taxotere”.  Needless to say, I felt alone, angry and very depressed when this first happened to me. Bald men are considered sexy these days, but bald women are regarded as freaks.

I love sports and the outdoors, so not having hair really presented a huge problem. I searched and searched for an acceptable solution… and it took me over three years to find one. Unfortunately, the solution is very expensive.

I believe the drug manufacturer should compensate me and others affected by this serious side effect. I was never told this could possibly happen. Compensation is not going to give us back our own hair, but at least we can have the next best thing:  to make Sanofi-Aventis, the manufacturer of Taxotere, do the honorable thing for all of us. At this stage of my journey, I want to be a “poster child” for a breast cancer vaccine research project. I think we should be spending most of our breast cancer research money in this country on finding a cure, rather than on finding new treatments to merely prolong life. A cure is what I want for the next generation of women so they never have to experience this nightmare.

Our goal is to raise awareness of the drug company’s non-disclosure among oncologists and their patients. We want to make sure that no more women are left uninformed about this side effect.