Today Elizabeth Edwards died from metastatic breast cancer. She was first diagnosed in 2004, the day after John Kerry & John Edwards failed to win the 2004 Presidential election. The tumor (which she discovered herself) was the size of a half dollar. It was detected early and the prognosis was good because it had not spread to her body but was contained to her breast. She did a lumpectomy, along with chemotherapy and radiation. In 2006, over a year after her diagnosis, her oncologist said, "that I had a lot going on in my life . . . but cancer was not one of them" (taken from The Daily Kos). Then in March 2007, Edwards discovered that her cancer had spread to her ribs, hip, and possibly her lungs. Her oncologist, Dr. Lisa Carey, confirmed that there was no cure for her cancer but that it could be treated and she could live a very full life for the next few years. But that her cancer was terminal. (Here is the link with the original press conference that the Edwards' did at UNC Chapel Hill: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/08/us/08edwards.html?hp).
When I heard that Elizabeth Edwards had passed away this evening I cried. I'd like to be able to tell you that it was purely out of empathy and sympathy -- that my tears were for her young children, as well as her older daughter, her extended family and friends, and even for her estranged husband. But I cried not only in sadness for another woman felled by cancer, but because this particular woman, who lived in Chapel Hill, who had the same disease I have, who shared the same oncologist that I have (yes, Dr. Lisa Carey, is also my oncologist), and who had a similar prognosis, initially, to my prognosis--could be me.
There is a 14% chance that what happened to Elizabeth Edwards will happen to me.
There is a 14% chance that I will be going to see my oncologist for a follow-up appointment 2 years from now and she will be concerned about a symptom that I am exhibiting and in follow-up tests will tell me that the cancer has returned and it is in my bones or a major organ.
There is a 14% chance that just like Elizabeth Edwards, I will be living with stage IV metastatic cancer, trying to figure out how to live with a diagnosis of terminal cancer--how to live with the certain knowledge that my natural life span will be drastically cut short.
And there is a 14% chance that like Elizabeth Edwards I will not be here in six years. That I will die from the cancer in my body.
I'm scared. Not to the point where I feel paralyzed. And not to the point where I am going to spiral into depression. But in the here and now--on the night that Elizabeth Edwards has died, I'm scared. And I cried not only because a very public woman who had breast cancer died, a woman who lived less than 10 miles down the road from me, but because when I heard that Elizabeth Edwards had died today, I realized that that could be me. We have the same disease with a similar prognosis, were treated in the same facility by the same oncologist. How could I not feel freaked out and wonder if that will be me one day?
Which is why I can't say I'm a survivor. I know I've written about this in past posts, but I think Edwards death reminds me that I live with a certain amount of uncertainty. I want to be part of that 86%. I live every day with most of me believing that I will be part of that 86%. But then there are days, like today, where a shadow is cast, and I am reminded that there are the 14% of people who don't survive this disease.
The last thing I'll say, though, is that as selfish as part of my tears were, I do mourn Elizabeth Edwards death. Because I think a lot of what she said and did regarding her cancer diagnosis was exemplary and provide me with a model for how I want to approach my own future. In countless interviews after her 2007 cancer relapse, she reiterated that everybody has to die; in her case, she now knows what she's going to die from. She also said that what she wants to show people isn't a woman dying from cancer but a person living with cancer. And that this is the biggest message she has for people with cancer--not to focus on the dying but on the living.
And so in honor of Elizabeth Edwards, I'm going to focus on living my life as well as I can. I hope you will too.