Breast cancer awareness month is over and, as November rolls in, pink will be just another color until next year. While the month dedicated to the disease has passed, women in Aiken and all over the world are living – and thriving – with stage 4 metastatic breast cancer.
"Every day when I wake up, I go, 'Well thank you for another day. Thank you, God,'" said Margie Hamman of Aiken, who has been living with metastatic breast cancer since 2015.
Metastatic breast cancer is the most advanced stage of the disease.
"Many do not realize that breast cancer itself does not become deadly until it spreads to other parts of the body, most often the lungs, brain, liver and bones," said Lisa Ann Wheeler, lead breast cancer advocate in the state of South Carolina for the National Breast Cancer Coalition.
"Breast cancer that spreads to other organs is still breast cancer and does not become bone cancer or liver cancer or lung cancer. Under a microscope, the tumor cells will still look and act like breast cancer and will be treated as breast cancer. Metastatic breast cancer is treatable but no longer curable," Wheeler said.
Treatment, she said, is lifelong, and focuses on preventing the spread of the disease and managing symptoms.
"The goal is for patients to live a good quality of life as long as possible," Wheeler said.
Hamman was initially diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer in 2010. She had a bi-lateral mastectomy, six rounds of chemo and 32 rounds of radiation, following up with hormone therapy. During her five-year checkup, she was re-diagnosed and has since retired.
Hamman was a teacher at Millbrook Elementary School during her first diagnosis and said keeping things going in her classroom and staying busy was the best medicine.
"But I have 22 piano students, so I have children in my home, and again, that's the best medicine – just to stay busy and stay active and stay positive," she said.
It's the three Fs that keep her going, she says: faith, family and friends.
"I don't know what I would do without my friends and my family and my church family," she said. "I don't know how people do it without a belief system or without a support system. That’s so important – it’s so important for anybody, disease or disease free. You know, we all get through life with the help of our friends and our family. That’s been very important, and that’s the nice thing about a small town here in Aiken: You know everybody takes care of each other."
Dianne Hadley is an Aiken resident who was diagnosed first with stage 2 breast cancer in 2006 and diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer in April 2018. She told the Aiken Standard last year that the diagnosis hasn't slowed her down and said last month she has had an "outstanding year."
She's traveled oversees with her family, been on a river cruise, went on a golf trip with other couples and visited both her sisters, who live in Alabama.
"I pretty much do anything I want to do," she said, adding the disease has made her step back, prioritize spending time with her family, and make holidays and other events the most meaningful they can be.
"I would say … that when I first got the diagnosis of metastatic breast cancer, I just thought it was like a death sentence," she said. "I didn't think I'd be around for even a year. Now it's been two years, and I'm still here. I'm still enjoying life and thriving."
Wheeler said the conversation about breast cancer needs to change to include metastatic breast cancer.
"Of the 3.5 million U.S. people living with a history of breast cancer (all stages), an estimated 155,000 have stage 4 breast cancer. This means when the average person thinks about breast cancer, they aren't thinking about people with metastatic breast cancer. They are thinking about family and friends who had early-stage disease, were treated and to their knowledge are fine," she said.
"This is certainly understandable but an ongoing challenge and one that must be addressed to make any meaningful progress in terms of education, awareness and scientific progress, especially research, which is paramount to ending metastatic breast cancer."
Hamman's advice to women is that they have to be their own best advocate, staying on top of doctors and nurses and educating themselves, as well as keeping a positive outlook.
"Life is a gift; we're meant to be joyful people," Hamman said.
Hadley wants to encourage people not to be afraid and to get mammograms and regular checkups.
"I think that not knowing is worse than knowing and being able to do something about it," she said.
For more information about the National Breast Cancer Coalition, visit breastcancerdeadline2020.org.