Colleen Hofmeister, Breast Cancer Survivor
Since the day I was diagnosed with Stage 4 metastatic breast cancer in February 2007, I have been wrestling alligators. Not literally, of course, but figuratively as I step away from my family and friends to receive difficult treatments and tests, face harsh news and look deep into my soul. I have no formal training wrestling alligators; I’ve never studied technique. But here I am, fighting matches and celebrating hard won victories.
I was dumbfounded when I was diagnosed with Stage 4 breast cancer. I couldn’t believe that at age 44, after lifelong vigilance about my health and steadfastly showing up for regular mammograms and sonograms, I not only had cancer, but it had metastasized throughout my bones. I had bought into the battle cry for early detection and tried to practice it. How could this be?
“It’s so important for people to understand that though we are continuing treatment – and may do so throughout our lives – we are still survivors.”
Pain in my hand, neck and back, not a lump in my breast, got me to the hospital for an MRI. By the time my cancer was detected, the horse was out of the barn and surgery to remove it was no longer an option. Not wanting to travel, I was lucky to be able to take treatment at a clinic on Long Island near my home. Being ER and PR positive, at their direction I had my ovaries removed to reduce the estrogen in my body. I began an aromatase inhibitor to slow the progression of the disease and medication to reduce or delay bone damage from the cancer.
It’s been a rough road and along the way I have tried to expand my options by exploring ways to supplement my traditional medical treatments. I believe that as odd as my diagnosis had been, my cure can be just as odd. I tried repeatedly to speak to my oncologist about incorporating various modalities of holistic treatments into my “game plan,” but he did not agree that it was necessary. I was positive I needed much more than the standard protocol to successfully wrestle this alligator.
So in February 2008, one year after diagnosis, I made a huge decision: I switched cancer centers. It wasn’t a simple drive down the road, either. I overcame my travel phobia, packed my bags and headed to a facility out of state, where I was sure I’d get what I personally needed.
I started on a more holistic approach to my disease which included the same medical treatment but added spiritual, nutritional and mind-body medicine as well. I regained the strength to go back to work on a part-time basis and received affirmation that my hope was not misguided. My cancer is not waning altogether, but has shown a remarkable decline. With this more integrative approach, I feel much more empowered and optimistic.
While I’m busy living (working, doing volunteer projects and raising two teenagers), I also find time to regularly share my story through a viral network of friends and family that has morphed into a global “newsletter.” I write magazine and newspaper articles about my experience and how I LIVE with late stage cancer. I incorporated my alligator wrestling concept into a logo, and now fellow Stage 4 patients are wearing items with the logo. I even participated in a public service announcement that’s now airing on television.
I also mentor many people who are newly diagnosed with cancer or are suffering a recurrence. I have been blessed to receive notes from fellow alligator wrestlers who thank me because they didn’t have the words to explain how they were feeling until they read some of my writings. I’ve worked with the American Cancer Society to raise funds and awareness, teamed up with the Metastatic Breast Cancer Network to reach out to gals around the world, given speeches at various events sharing my story, and brought the word of hope to those who felt hopeless. I have had a jewelry designer generously devote her talents to create pieces of art to sell to raise funds for our fight and designed a logo for Stage 4 warriors to be applied to various items for sale. I continue to inject my somewhat off-center sense of humor into all that I do and, along the way, I have made more good friends than I thought was humanly possible. I have cancer; cancer does not have ME.
It’s so important for people, including the cancer community, to understand that though we are continuing treatment – and may do so throughout our lives – we are still survivors. I was overwhelmed when recently asked to address a room full of sponsors for a Susan G. Komen race – as a cancer success story! We are living, not dying, and we want more done to help us to do so. We want new treatment options; we want to be embraced by the cancer community as their “sisters;” and we want a cure for this nasty alligator.
Each one of us is only a test away from being told we have late stage cancer. I want my daughter and her generation to have more hope and more options so they don’t have to wrestle the alligators.