My name is Helene and I am 50 years old. I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2008. At the time, I was a full time flight attendant for the biggest airline in Canada. I worked almost 20 years in this industry and I loved it. I consider that I was good at it and, as a Flight Director, I was still motivated to continue my career until I could retire.
Just like many women, I discovered a lump in my right breast by auto-examination. I did not like what I felt and the next day I was in doctor’s office with a requisition to have a mammogram scheduled ASAP.
The results of the mammogram showed that I needed more testing. This medical journey was happening over the holidays. That was a little rough.
I was getting a little nervous about my condition so I accelerated the whole process after I met with a friend of a friend and opened up to her. Shortly after, she recommended a doctor that dealt with a lot of cases like mine. So, I made an appointment with him and he put a needle in my breast and attempted to remove some liquid. He was unsuccessful but he sent traces of flesh to the lab. Two days later, he called me and strongly suggested me to have a lumpectomy the week after. The results of the lab showed abnormal cells. I did not argue. I went through the procedure and the results were positive. I had breast cancer. At the time, I tried to see it as an obstacle in my life, a speedbump and it made me think a lot about my future. I freaked a little but I remained positive about getting over that journey and take it for what it is. Look at the world with different eyes. “Don’t sweat the small stuff” etc.
After the lumpectomy I was sent to an oncologist to start the follow up and prescribe a treatment. A battery of tests was requested before starting the chemotherapy. Among the exams, a simple x-ray of my thorax came up with some nodules in the lungs. My oncologist did not understand. The lymph nodes from my breast lumpectomy came back negative. Are those metastases or something else? Further testing was required and the final diagnosis was given to me on June 4th 2008. I had 2 primary cancers, breast and lung, plus thyroid cancer. Three cancers and one of them is deadly. Everyone who is diagnosed with cancer knows that sinking feeling when you hear your doctor announce such news. I was mentally drained. I felt like I won the worst lottery in the world and the same questions again…Why me? What did I do wrong? Every doctor I saw whether it was for my breast, my thyroid or my lungs were shaking their heads in disbelief.
I had to go through a very aggressive treatment that started with the removal of the upper lobe in my right lung. Followed by chemotherapy (3 cycles), radiation therapy (3), hormonotherapy and finally, a complete hysterectomy due to increasing volume of fibroids (tamoxifen). Menopause here I come…
In 2010, the lung cancer could not be contained and spread through my right lung…again. I was given 6 months to a year to live. This type of cancer is a genetic mutation that cannot be cured. You can stretch someone’s life but doctors have no solution to cure it.
I had to find a way to enjoy life for a little longer. I found a team of doctors near home who were willing to give me a daily pill to stretch my life. My lung cancer was very specific with an EGFR mutation (15-18% of all lung cancers). The medication was erlotinib. It was a great pill (Tarceva) that helped me have a good quality of life just over 2 years. It was a fantastic break for me. I started to live again. Nevertheless, the specialists were very clear about this medication. I will develop a resistance and the medication will stop working at some point. They were right. I had to look into something else… One of the specialists suggested meeting a doctor involved with clinical trials in Boston.
I met with Dr. Engelman at the end of May 2014 at the Mass. General Hospital. My health was going downhill very rapidly. After going through all the exams and the biopsy on my lung, my profile was a good match and on June 18, 2014 I started to take another type of pill.
Since then my health has improved tremendously and I continue to have scans every 6 weeks with follow ups by his team.
Eventually, I truly believe that Dr. Engelman’s team will find a long lasting medication for people afflicted with this type of lung cancer.
I am very grateful to everyone involved in the study as well as the main sponsor (Astra Zeneca). Also, I am very grateful to foundations like Lazarex Cancer Foundation for giving some financial relief to patients like me who are literally desperate to live and fighting to stay strong physically and mentally.
I cannot thank you enough for helping people going through such difficult times. Trust me, it would be easy to give up when the prognostic is so dim. Personally, I feel like I owe it to the people who love me, my friends, my family and to the people who are driven to find a cure.
Thank you for reading my story and keep up the good work.
August 2017 update: We learned that Helene passed away this month. We, the staff at Lazarex Cancer Foundation, are honored to have been able to help her fight cancer and to live her life for the 3 years that she was our patient.