OKC woman deals with cancer again 11 years after she beat it
Oklahoma City — You'd have to be asleep for all of October to miss hearing about breast cancer: Everything from football players' shoelaces to the sticker on Chiquita bananas is pink, to raise awareness and urge women to get mammograms.
With all the color comes a narrative of survivors who caught the cancer early and use their fight to inspire others. It's not false narrative: more than 90 percent of women whose cancer is diagnosed in the early stages are alive at least five years later.
But, as Nancy Hughes' experience shows, the story doesn't end at the five-year mark.
Hughes was diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer in 2003 and treated successfully. Years passed, 11 of them. She kept going to her follow-up appointments, walking for awareness, encouraging others to believe they too could beat breast cancer.
And then she felt a pain in her back.
The cancer was back, and it had spread through her bones, a process called metastasis. There's no cure for metastatic breast cancer.
“I will be in treatment for the rest of my life, or until I decide I'm done,” Hughes, 60, said. “Eventually, the cancer will spread, and it will kill me.”
The National Cancer Institute estimates about 150,000 women nationwide have metastatic breast cancer, and about three-quarters of them were diagnosed at an earlier stage, like Hughes.
Some breast cancers spread because they weren't detected early, said Dr. Wajeeha Razaq, a breast cancer specialist at Stephenson Cancer Center at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center.
In other cases, there's no clear answer why some cancers stay in remission, while others spread to the liver, lungs, bones or brain. More aggressive types of cancers tend to come back within three years, while others can take decades to show up elsewhere in the body, she said.
Researchers are trying to come up with blood tests to detect cancer recurrence earlier, when it might be more treatable, Razaq said. They also are studying whether new immunotherapies, combined with chemotherapy, could allow patients to live longer.
“It's a very exciting time in breast cancer,” she said.
Some women live 20 years or longer with metastatic breast cancer. The standard for treating patients with metastatic cancer is to provide constant treatment, Razaq said, but some patients need a break because chemotherapy leaves them too weak. Others decide to risk the cancer spreading so they can take time off treatment long enough to travel or feel well for other milestones, she said.
While constant treatment doesn't make for an easy life, it's the life Hughes has, and she's going to make the most of it. While the cancer has undermined her bone strength and forced her to take precautions against falling, she still tries to get out with friends.
And, as her hair falls out, she's building up a hat collection, including one that says, ‘Have you seen my hair today?'
“It's my reality, so why not make fun of it?” she said. “When I wake up every morning, it's like having a gift of life, because you just don't know.”
Hughes said she wishes, though, that some of the effort going into raising awareness of breast cancer instead went into raising money for research into better treatments, if not a cure.
“I think most people are aware,” she said.