The world of cancer prevention, diagnosis and treatment is changing at a fast and furious pace in some ways, and remains heartbreakingly archaic in others. How has breast cancer treatment arrived where it is now? Experiments and data collection on women who were treated in the past. How will treatment continue to improve for women diagnosed in the future? Experiments and data collection on... well, me... and you, if you are a survivor.
I am thankful for the women who have gone on before, who taught medicine so much about what causes cancer and what doesn't, and which treatments work and which do not. I know that many of them suffered because there was so much that was not known, and the pathway to medical enlightenment is frequently a bloody and cruel road.
Data is collected on all cancer patients regarding diagnosis, treatments and outcomes. Giant national and international databases exist, constantly crunching the numbers and becoming increasingly complicated as treatment becomes more specific and sophisticated. But why do I call myself a guinea pig? In addition to being a small piece in the larger collective whose outcomes so far support the current standard of care, I am also part of a very large scale experiment with outcomes that won't be known for years. Right now I am prescribed an aromatase inhibitor which deprives my body of every drop of estrogen so that any leftover cancer cells can't use it to grow new tumors. Just within the last year the recommended amount of time to be on this medication changed from 5 years to 10 years. Obviously a study came out showing that chances of recurrence are lower when on the drugs longer... so, yay? Right? Wait. Does anybody know what happens further down the road in terms of heart health, brain health, general endocrine health, and other potential side effects when estrogen has been artificially stripped from the body for such a long period of time? Nope. I, and all of the other women now on ten year regimens of anti-estrogen therapy, will be providing that information to the medical world in about 20 years.
"Legacy" is painted over the Cancer entry from a 1950 Encyclopedia Britannica (a terrifying section to read, by the way). The painting is about the women in the 50's and 60's who didn't know that drinking, smoking, chemicals and processed foods would eventually be linked to increased cancer rates; women diagnosed with cancer who were experimented on with surgeries, chemotherapies and radiation treatments many of which are no longer used because they were either completely ineffective or overwhelmingly laden with cruel side effects; women who created a legacy from which I benefit. I am now part of this legacy going forward. But it is my most heartfelt prayer that this is a legacy that will eventually end... with a cure for this horrendous disease.