Anne Mawhirt was 49, the mother of teenage children and a busy science teacher when she was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer. By the time she realised she had a breast lump, her cancer had spread to her bones, her liver and lungs. Anne says she “was seriously convinced it was all over”. But that was two and a half years ago. While Anne knows she will never be cured, her cancer is stable at the moment, she is pain free and the only apparent symptoms result from her ongoing treatment. She continues to tick personal goals off her bucket list, is travelling to far-flung places but is sad that her 20 year-old daughter is wiser than she should be. This is her story.
“I am 52 now, but I was diagnosed in December 2014 when I was only 49. When I was diagnosed, there was a 2.6 centimetre lump in my breast but the cancer had already spread to my bones, liver and lungs. I couldn’t believe it, I had always done everything right – never smoked, breastfed my children for 18 months each.
Before finding the lump, I did not have any symptoms, although I had a funny patch on my face that was a bit numb – I had put that down to a dodgy eyebrow wax! Turns out it was a tumour in my skull pushing on a facial nerve.
I really thought I was done for. I was seriously convinced it was all over.
Surgery was not really an option for me, also it felt like I was shutting the gate after the horse had bolted. I have not had any intravenous chemotherapy – I do have ongoing hormone therapy, because my cancer is oestrogen receptor positive. I have been on a clinical trial (the Monarch 2 trial) for the past 2.5 years, which is still ongoing. Clinical trials are part of the reason I am still here. It is a double blind trial, so you don’t know if you are actually receiving the new treatment, but I think I am on the active drug because I have had such a good response. As soon as we got going, my tumour markers steadily dropped right down to normal, and they have been for quite some time now. The primary tumour in the breast is probably half the original size it was. It shrank quite quickly and most of the tumours in my lungs and liver have resolved. It’s like scar tissue - you can see where they were, but they don’t appear to be active. It is harder to tell with bone, because active healing bone can look similar on a scan as progressing bone, but the size of the lesions have not increased.
My kids were teenagers when I was first diagnosed and I had to tell them. When you are running backwards and forwards to the doctor, you can’t hide it. That was a very tough thing to deal with, but I have met women with little toddlers and I think that is worse.
I know that my daughter does stress. Her boyfriend tells me she is keen to finish university, get out into the workforce and become financially secure. She is worried that if I advance and can’t work, she wants to be able to look after me. I never thought about that; there was a subtext I did not notice. I think, ‘You should not be thinking about that at your age’. I worry she is rushing to grow up. My son is more likely to ask me how I am travelling, but I don’t think he deals with my prognosis as openly as my daughter. He does take action in his own way as he regularly donates blood.
Being diagnosed made me think about my goals. At the time, my son Liam was starting Year 11 and Emma was just about to start university. I wanted to see him through Year 12 and I have done that. Then, I wanted to see my daughter graduate from university and she is almost there. I separated from my husband, because life is now too short to be unhappy. The first year, I took the kids to Bali. Last year we went to Europe – Paris, London and Switzerland and it was amazing. Now I am planning to go with the kids to Rome, Venice and Vienna.
Many people don’t understand the whole concept of metastatic cancer. I am not in remission; stable would be a better description. You can live with it, but you won’t beat it. Other than the side effects from the drugs, including diarrhoea, everything is going really well at the moment. The kids at school don’t know I am sick. So, I still work as a science teacher and a Year 10 co-ordinator. I take everything in three-month blocks – I just think after each scan, ‘Well, I am right for another three months’.
I have hope because there are some women who I know with metastatic breast cancer doing really well. There are a few ladies in my support group who are up to 10 years into the disease. I didn’t realise that was possible when I was diagnosed but these ladies are my inspiration.
Having said that, it does feel a bit like a lottery and you never know which cards you are going to get.
Cancer has changed me. I am probably more likely to grab hold of opportunities. I do have my moments, but I try really hard not to live in cancer world. I am doing well at the moment, so for now at least, we have all kind of relaxed and have stopped holding our breath.”
* Anne shared her story in June 2017.