On Monday, I had my monthly appointment with my oncologist. As usual, my vitals were taken, and my blood was drawn for my regular blood panel, which is a CBC w/differential. A CBC w/ differential measures the number of red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets in the blood, including the different types of white blood cells (neutrophils, lymphocytes, monocytes, basophils, and eosinophils). The amount of hemoglobin (a substance in the blood that carries oxygen) and hematocrit (the amount of whole blood that is made up of red blood cells) are also measured. A CBC with differential is used to help diagnose and monitor many different conditions, including anemia and infection.
When my doctor came into the exam room, he handed me my blood panel results and told me that my blood looked good this month! My white blood cell count went up from last month to 3.9, which is only .1 from the low end of normal, and my ANC went up to 1.7, which is .2 into the acceptable range, which is the highest it has been since I started my medication in March. WBC count, RBC count, and ANC are the primary three levels that my oncologist looks at. My red blood cell count is lower, so it needs to be watched because if it lowers any more, I could develop Anemia. I take Iron every day, and I have been getting my B12 shots, so I am hoping that in the next month, my RBC count will improve.
Once we were done discussing my results, my oncologist said that he felt I was doing well and that I had adjusted well to my medications, so there was no need to change my treatment. We discussed the frequency of PET scans, and we agreed that I would have my next PET scan in early March, four months after my last one.
Yesterday I was not feeling well, which is not uncommon after starting to take the iBrance again after a week off and getting my Faslodex injections. Today I am in quite a bit of pain, primarily overall body pain, mainly from the Injections. Faslodex, for me, is very unpredictable. Some months I can barely tell I have had the injections, sometimes, I get terrible headaches and injection site pain, and sometimes, my whole body hurts like it does today. Generally, any discomfort or pain goes away with Tylenol and only lasts for a day or two if I have any at all.
My husband and I met with my oncologist to get the results from my PET scan, run my blood panels, and get my Faslodex injections. My blood panels came back with several low levels, which seems to be my typical result month to month. Still, as my oncologist explained to me again, my blood looks good for someone on chemotherapy medication.
As far as my PET scan results are concerned, I am happy to say I have good news! The two tumors in my neck are gone; there was no sign of them still being there other than some excess tissue. Cancer on my rib in my back had no change compared to my PET scan in July. I have no other signs of metastatic disease, so no new tumors have been detected. 🙂 So, the meds are still working, so we are staying on the current plan.
I am hoping that when I have my next PET scan in 4 to 6 months, the remaining tumor will either be smaller or still have no change. From what I understand, once the tumor is stabilized or killed off, I will be in remission, which is the end goal of stage 4 metastatic cancer since there is no cure.
I had my second PET scan on Friday since starting iBrance and Faslodex. I wasn’t nervous about the scan; that part is relatively easy; it’s the uncertainty and having to wait to see my oncologist for the results that is the most difficult part. I also deal with pain during my scan because ever since my first surgery in April 2019, I have had pain when raising my arms over my head, which can become very uncomfortable when I have to stay still in that position for more than a few minutes.
Unfortunately, PET Scans are not as quick and easy as getting X-rays. From checking in to registering, going through the scan process to leaving, I was there for 3 hours. I go alone to the appointments because my husband can’t go back with me while I am being scanned, so it doesn’t make sense for him to be there. He goes with me to my oncologist appointment after my scan, so he will be with me when I get my results. I never know what to expect, so it is comforting to have him with me, no matter what the results turn out to be.
Until I faced breast cancer in 2019, I had never had surgery, a biopsy, a CT Scan, a Bone Scan – Nuclear Medicine, or a PET Scan. I have learned so much in the last three years and eight months about things I wish I had never had to experience. I share as much information as I can with my readers because I want you to not only understand what I have been through and what I am going through now as a stage 4 metastatic breast cancer patient but also to help those who are going through the same journey. It is terrifying when you don’t know what to expect, and you are overwhelmed with information. I try to make it a little easier for those interested in getting the information needed to help themselves through whatever they may be facing or helping a friend or loved one through a difficult time.
What is a PET Scan?
A positron emission tomography (PET) scan is an imaging test that can help reveal the metabolic or biochemical function of your tissues and organs. The PET scan uses a radioactive drug (tracer) to show both normal and abnormal metabolic activity. A PET scan can often detect the abnormal metabolism of the tracer in diseases before the disease shows up on other imaging tests, such as computerized tomography (CT) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).
The tracer is most often injected into a vein within your hand or arm. The tracer will then collect into areas of your body that have higher levels of metabolic or biochemical activity, which often pinpoints the location of the disease.
Why it’s done
A PET scan is an effective way to help identify a variety of conditions, including cancer, heart disease and brain disorders. Your doctor can use this information to help diagnose, monitor or treat your condition.
Cancer cells show up as bright spots on PET scans because they have a higher metabolic rate than do normal cells. PET scans may be useful in:
Revealing whether your cancer has spread
Checking whether a cancer treatment is working
Finding a cancer recurrence
PET scans must be interpreted carefully because noncancerous conditions can look like cancer, and some cancers do not appear on PET scans. Many types of solid tumors can be detected by PET-CT and PET-MRI scans, including:
Head and neck
PET scans can reveal areas of decreased blood flow in the heart. This information can help you and your doctor decide, for example, whether you might benefit from a procedure to open clogged heart arteries (angioplasty) or coronary artery bypass surgery.
PET scans can be used to evaluate certain brain disorders, such as tumors, Alzheimer’s disease and seizures.
For your PET scan, a radioactive drug (tracer) will be injected into a vein. Because the amount of radiation you’re exposed to in the tracer is small, the risk of negative effects from the radiation is low. But the tracer might:
Expose your unborn baby to radiation if you are pregnant
Expose your child to radiation if you are breastfeeding
Cause an allergic reaction, although this is rare
Talk with your doctor about the benefits and risks of a PET scan.
How you prepare
Tell your doctor:
If you’ve ever had a bad allergic reaction
If you’ve been sick recently or you have another medical condition, such as diabetes
If you’re taking any medications, vitamins or herbal supplements
If you’re pregnant or you think you might be pregnant
If you’re breastfeeding
If you’re afraid of enclosed spaces (claustrophobic)
Your doctor will give you detailed instructions on how to prepare for your scan. A general rule is to avoid strenuous exercise for a couple of days before the scan and to only drink water after midnight before the day of the scan.
What you can expect
The PET-CT or PET-MRI scanner is a large machine that looks a little like a giant doughnut standing upright, similar to CT or MRI scanners.
From start to finish, the procedure takes about two hours to complete and typically does not require an overnight hospital stay. When you arrive for your scan, you may be asked to:
Change into a hospital gown
Empty your bladder
A member of your health care team injects the radioactive drug (tracer) into a vein in your arm or hand. You may briefly feel a cold sensation moving up your arm. You rest and remain silent in a reclining chair for 30 to 60 minutes while the tracer is absorbed by your body.
During the procedure
When you are ready, you lie on a narrow, padded table that slides into the part of the scanner that looks like a doughnut hole. During the scan you must be very still so that the images aren’t blurred. It takes about 30 minutes to complete a PET-CT scan and 45 minutes for a PET-MRI scan. The machine makes buzzing and clicking sounds.
The test is painless. If you’re afraid of enclosed spaces, you may feel some anxiety while in the scanner. Be sure to tell the nurse or technologist about any anxiety causing you discomfort. He or she may give you a drug to help you relax.
After the procedure
After the test you can carry on with your day as usual, unless your doctor tells you otherwise. You’ll need to drink plenty of fluids to help flush the tracer from your body.
A doctor specially trained to interpret scan images (radiologist) will report the findings to your doctor.
The radiologist may compare your PET images with images from other tests you’ve undergone recently, such as MRI or CT. Or the PET images may be combined to provide more detail about your condition.
I hope this explanation of PET scans helps you to understand what is involved and what cancer patients go through as a regular part of their care. Depending on the type of cancer and the treatment plan, most cancer patients are scanned every three to six months. I am scanned every four months because my cancer, in both 2019 and currently, has proven to be aggressive, so my oncologist feels that every three months is too often, but every six months is too long between scans, making both him and me nervous.
I will post again once I have my results, but in the meantime, if you have any questions, don’t hesitate to get in touch with me. Thank you for being here! 💕
I was pretty wiped out when I got home from my appointment on Monday, so that’s why I am just now updating you. Each appointment is usually about 2 hours long, from checking in to leaving, and depending on how I am feeling on that particular day, it can take a lot out of me. Below is an explanation of what happened during those two hours.
When I check in, I fill out a short form with my name, arrival time, if I have been recently hospitalized and if I have changed my insurance. I give the staff my name, birth date, and the short form. The staff person goes into a drawer and pulls a file with two more forms for me to fill out, hands me a clipboard, and they put a hospital bracelet on me. I sit in the waiting room, which is almost always pretty full, so about 16 to 18 people, both patients, and caregivers. The first form is a general form asking about any recent side effects, hospital stays, surgeries, medications, allergies, and what questions I have for my doctor. The second form is a suicide form with a few questions about self-harm and caregiver abuse. It is sad that such a form exists, but it is a reality for cancer patients, especially older patients. I fill out both forms, keep the forms with me and return the clipboard to the check-in area. This process is done every time I have an appointment.
Next, I am called back to the lab area, where I hand the tech my completed and signed forms. They weigh me, take my temperature, blood pressure, and oxygen. The tech then asks me about my pain level and if I am constipated, both common issues while undergoing cancer treatment. Last, the tech draws two vials of blood, puts them in the machine for processing, and walks me to the exam room. To give you an idea of how big this office is, there are eight doctors and twelve exam rooms.
Everything is very efficient, so I rarely have to wait longer than five minutes before my Oncologist’s PA comes in and hands me the results of my blood panels. I see his PA almost every time I have an appointment, and every other time I am there, I see both my Oncologist and his PA. On Monday, the PA said that everything looks good considering the treatment plan I am on. My white and red blood cell counts are a little low, but nothing to be overly concerned about. My ANC is low again but not too low, so hopefully, it will stabilize as I continue my treatment.
The last part of my appointment is when I go back to the chemo treatment room to get my injections. This is generally the longest part of my appointment because the medicine for my injections isn’t ordered from the pharmacy (which is in-house) until my Oncologist or PA has seen me and approved for me to get my injections, which is determined by my blood panel results. Once my nurse gets the injections from the pharmacy, she warms them because the medication is so thick, so this adds on extra time for me to wait, but it is an important step. Once the injections are sufficiently warmed, I am taken into “The Shot Room,” and I am given my injections which take several minutes due to the amount of medication. I mentioned on Monday that I have a lot less pain and discomfort after my injections if they massage the area after taking the needle out. By massaging the site of the injection, they help the medication disperse quicker. My nurse thanked me for letting her know that info and said she would pass the word on to the other nurses. Patients are often scared to speak up about even a minor issue, and it doesn’t need to be that way. I have learned to be very open no matter how embarrassed I might be because I know that after coming to see my oncologist and his staff for over three years, they want me to be open, honest, and, most importantly, not to suffer in silence if something is causing me issues. So please remember, you are your best advocate when it comes to our healthcare system!
So what is next? I started back on iBrance on Monday after having a much easier time on the lower dose. On July 11th, I will have my PET scan to check the size of my tumors. Hopefully, they will be smaller, which means that the medications are working. On July 18th, I will go back to my oncologist’s office for my monthly appointment and get the results of my PET scan. My husband will go with me on the 18th but not on the 11th. Unfortunately, I am used to PET scans now, so he does not need to go with me.
I have had quite a few people reach out to me and ask me questions about my diagnosis of Stage 4 Metastatic Breast Cancer and its meaning. I have also noticed that many people are keeping their distance from me, and just like the first time I had breast cancer, I am sure it is because most people do not know what to say to me, so I feel the need to explain things as bestas I can. I do not want to sugar coat the reality of my diagnosis so this is why I chose this article to share with you. The article does an excellent job of explaining the myths and misconceptions….I hope it helps.
First and foremost, I do not have terminal cancer. But to be clear, there is no cure for Stage 4 Metastatic Breast Cancer; it is advanced and requires more aggressive treatment. Terminal or end-stage cancer refers to cancer that is no longer treatable and eventually results in death. I am currently in treatment with my oncologist taking state-of-the-art medications proven to prolong life and keep cancer from spreading more than it already has. Every three months, I will have a PET scan to check the size of my tumors, and once they have either shrunk or stabilized, I will be in remission. Being in remission does not mean I am cured because there is no cure; I will have Stage 4 Cancer for the rest of my life, so my treatments are indefinite. If my prognosis should change to terminal, I will let you know, but I am not expecting that to happen anytime soon.
Some people tend to think that breast cancer is breast cancer, regardless of stage at diagnosis. In the media, breast cancer is often portrayed as a relatively good type of cancer that can be overcome with the right combination of treatments. But as our Community at Breastcancer.org in our stage IV discussion forum tell us again and again, stage IV, or metastatic, breast cancer — cancer that has spread beyond the breast into other parts of the body, such as the bones, liver, or brain — is very different from early-stage breast cancer. They often need to educate family, friends, neighbors, and coworkers about this reality. What follows are nine of the most common myths and misconceptions about metastatic breast cancer.
Myth #1: Metastatic breast cancer is curable Whether metastatic breast cancer (MBC) is someone’s first diagnosis or a recurrence after treatment for earlier-stage breast cancer, it can’t be cured. However, treatments can keep it under control, often for months at a time. People with MBC report fielding questions from family and friends such as, “When will you finish your treatments?” or “Won’t you be glad when you’re done with all of this?” The reality is they will be in treatment for the rest of their lives. A typical pattern is to take a treatment regimen as long as it keeps the cancer under control and the side effects are tolerable. If it stops working, a patient can switch to another option. There may be periods of time when the cancer is well-controlled and a person can take a break. But people with MBC need to be in treatment for the rest of their lives.
Myth #2: People with metastatic breast cancer have a short amount of time left While some people mistakenly think MBC is curable, at the other extreme are those who assume it’s an immediate death sentence. But there is a big difference between stage IV incurable cancer, which MBC is, and terminal cancer, which can no longer be treated. A person isn’t automatically terminal when she or he gets a metastatic diagnosis. Although MBC almost certainly will shorten someone’s life, it often can be managed for years at a time.
Myth #3: People with metastatic breast cancer look sick and lose their hair “You don’t look sick.” “You look so well.” “Why do you still have your hair?” “Are you sure you have cancer?” These are comments that people with MBC report hearing. But there are many treatment options besides chemotherapy, and people often appear well while taking them. Some people with MBC report that they actually look better than they feel while in treatment. So they sometimes have to let family and friends know that even though they appear fine, they don’t feel well.
Myth #4: Metastatic breast cancer requires more aggressive treatment than earlier-stage breast cancer Related to myth #3 is the notion that because MBC is advanced cancer, doctors have to pull out all the stops to fight it. But that’s actually not the case, says Breastcancer.org professional advisory board member Sameer Gupta, MD, a medical oncologist at Bryn Mawr Hospital in Bryn Mawr, Pa., and a clinical assistant professor of medicine at Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia. “The goal Is control rather than cure. Think of it as a marathon vs. a 50-yard dash.” Doctors treat earlier-stage breast cancer more aggressively because the goal is to cure it: destroy all of the cancer cells and leave none behind, reducing the risk of recurrence as much as possible. With MBC, the goal is control so that patients can live well for as long as possible. And chemotherapy isn’t necessarily the mainstay of treatment.
Myth #5: If you’re diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer, you did something wrong or didn’t get the right treatment the first time When some people hear stage IV breast cancer, they assume something must have been missed along the way to let the cancer get that far. There is a misconception that breast cancer always develops in orderly steps from stages I to II, III, and then IV — and that there’s plenty of time to catch it early. People with MBC can face misguided assumptions that they must have skipped mammograms or self-exams, or they didn’t control risk factors such as not exercising enough, watching their weight, or eating healthy. But a person can do everything right and still get MBC. Although regular screenings increase the odds of diagnosing breast cancer at an earlier stage, they can’t guarantee it. Another major misconception: If you’re diagnosed with metastatic cancer after being treated for an early-stage breast cancer, you must have chosen the wrong treatment regimen or it wasn’t aggressive enough. But between 20% and 30% of people with an earlier-stage breast cancer will eventually go on to develop MBC — and there’s often no good explanation as to why. And it can happen to anyone. Treatments can reduce the risk of recurrence, but they can’t eliminate it.
Myth #6: Metastatic breast cancer is a single type of cancer that will be treated the same way for every person The label metastatic contributes to the myth that it is one kind of breast cancer. But like earlier-stage breast cancers, stage IV cancers can have different characteristics that will guide treatment choices. They can test positive or negative for hormone receptors and/or an abnormal HER2 gene — the gene that causes the cells to make too many copies of HER2 proteins that can fuel cancer growth. These test results guide treatment choices. Furthermore, treatment choices can depend on a person’s age, overall health, and whether there are other medical conditions present.
Myth #7: When breast cancer travels to the bone, brain, or lungs, it then becomes bone cancer, brain cancer, or lung cancer Not true. Breast cancer is still breast cancer, wherever it travels in the body. However, the characteristics of the cells can change over time. For example, a breast cancer that tested negative for hormone receptors or an abnormal HER2 gene might test positive when it moves to another part of the body, or vice versa (positive can become negative). “Keep in mind that the cancer cells are trying to survive in the body, so they can change,” says Dr. Gupta. “We always emphasize rechecking the biology.”
Myth #8: If an earlier-stage breast cancer is going to recur as metastatic breast cancer, it will happen within five years of the original diagnosis Ninety percent of MBC diagnoses occur in people who have already been treated for an earlier-stage breast cancer. Many people are under the impression that remaining cancer-free for five years means that a metastatic recurrence can’t happen. However, distant recurrences can occur several years or even decades after initial diagnosis. Factors such as original tumor size and the number of lymph nodes involved can help predict the risk of recurrence. For example, a 2017 survey of 88 studies involving nearly 63,000 women diagnosed with early-stage, hormone-receptor-positive breast cancer found that the risk of distant recurrence within 20 years ranged from 13% to 41%, depending on tumor size and lymph node involvement.
Myth #9: The mental and emotional experience of people with MBC is the same as that of earlier-stage patients People with MBC report hearing comments such as, “At least you have a good type of cancer,” “Aren’t you glad so much research on breast cancer has been done?,” “Fortunately you have so many options.” These might comfort people with early-stage breast cancer, who can look forward to one day finishing treatment and moving on — but people with MBC don’t have that luxury. They know they will be in treatment for the rest of their lives. They also know that their life is likely to be shorter than they’d planned. Mentally and emotionally, people with MBC have a completely different experience. “For them, the whole ringing the bell idea [to celebrate the end of treatment] does not work,” says Dr. Gupta. “I have patients who are coming in once a week and have to plan their lives around their treatment. The whole pink brigade idea is very upsetting to them.” Fortunately, more and more people with MBC are speaking up and calling attention to how their experience differs from that of people with earlier-stage breast cancer. People with MBC live with cancer always in the background of their lives, but with new and emerging therapies, many are living longer and maintaining their quality of life.
Over the last few years, and again now that my cancer has returned, many people have asked me if I had any signs of breast cancer before I found the first tumor in my breast. Yes, I did have a few of these signs, and I had pain. Please, remember to do your monthly breast self-exam and watch for these signs.
Medically reviewed by Amy Tiersten, MD — Written by Jennifer Bringle on October 5, 2020
Everyone talks about the importance of catching breast lumps as early as possible. But did you know there’s a host of lesser known breast cancer symptoms that might not show up on a self-exam or mammogram?
According to the American Cancer Society (ACA), breast cancer is the most common cancer in American women, other than skin cancers, and it’s the second-most deadly cancer for women behind lung cancer.
On average, there’s about a 1 in 8 chance that a U.S. woman will develop breast cancer at some point in their life. The ACA estimates that more than 40,000 women will die from breast cancer in 2020.
The most common form of breast cancer is invasive breast cancer, which is any type that has invaded the breast tissue.
Less common forms include inflammatory breast cancer (which is caused by cancer cells blocking lymph vessels in the skin, causing the breast to look inflamed) and Paget’s disease, which involves the skin of the nipple or areola.
With the high rates of breast cancer, the American Cancer Society recommends women have the choice to start annual mammograms at age 40. The organization says women between the ages of 45 and 54 should get mammograms every year.
And while the disease is most commonly discovered by detecting a lump during a mammogram, there are other lesser known signs and symptoms of breast cancer that women should look out for.
According to Marisa Weiss, MD, breast oncologist and founder of BreastCancer.org, discharge that’s bloody or pink and generally only on one side can possibly indicate the presence of cancer in the breast tissue, particularly if it’s persistent.
An enlarged breast — particularly if the swelling is isolated to one breast — or a change in the shape of the breast, can indicate issues within the tissue.
“An unusual shape where the contour is distorted and there’s a bulge in one part of the breast can be a sign of cancer,” says Weiss.
“It could feel like a lump, but it could also just be a region of the breast that feels firmer, and you can’t really feel a lump within it,” she says. “It also often becomes more pronounced when moving in different positions.”
Weiss says it’s important to remember that these signs and symptoms can indicate other benign issues that aren’t breast cancer, but it’s critical to monitor the symptoms and act if they don’t subside.
And for those who’ve already had breast cancer, it can be even more difficult to discern the innocuous from the malignant. In that case, Weiss says it’s particularly crucial to monitor changes in the breasts and alert your doctor when something doesn’t look or feel right.
“You’re always worried about recurrence of a new problem, so the ability to recognize the less common symptoms and signs may be a little trickier,” she says.
It’s sometimes difficult to distinguish between leftover scar tissue from your prior breast cancer. And if you’ve had mastectomy and reconstruction, you could have lumps and bumps in there that are due to scar tissue from all the healing where they removed and recreated your breast, says Weiss.
No matter what, Weiss advises women to pay attention to their bodies and maintain regular self-exams and mammograms. And should they notice something out of the ordinary? Let their doctor know.
Jennifer Bringle has written for Glamour, Good Housekeeping, and Parents, among other outlets. She’s working on a memoir about her post-cancer experience.