When you listen to her talk, you hear her proudly talk about teenagers … not grandchildren, but her own children. Motherhood came late for her … early 40s … yet she doesn’t generate the same sympathy as someone a decade younger with the same age children.
Her parents are no longer able to help care for either her or her children. In fact, this woman is a member of the sandwich generation in which she not only cares for her teenagers, but also cares for her aging parents as they navigate the uncertain path of dementia and other age-related issues.
Like many who are stricken with metastatic breast cancer, she was forced to medically retire from a career she spent decades building. When she laments that loss, there are those who are unaware enough to say, “At least you had time to build a career.”
As doctors try to figure out how to slow down the disease ravaging her body, they continue to check for any mutation that could give clues as to why repeated treatments are failing. Test after test after test comes back negative for mutations. She does not qualify for clinical trials due to either too many prior treatments or due to the fact that she doesn’t have the “x-factor” the clinical trial is targeting. In short, her garden-variety, very average, hormone positive breast cancer isn’t “interesting enough” to warrant further study from a clinical viewpoint.
You would never be able to tell this woman is sick simply by looking at her. She has lots of energy, but her life is slipping away. She can tell the differences in her body from one year to the next and deep down, she knows, barring a breakthrough treatment, that her time is limited.
Yet, she is seldom talked about or seldom seen. When one looks closely at stock photos for breast cancer awareness fundraisers, she’s the invisible one in the crowd. If she’s there, she won’t be flashing a brilliant smile of survival, but will be standing off to the side, wincing at the pain of it all. She wonders how women older than her feel … those already in their 60s and 70s … and the seeming lack of awareness that the average age of diagnosis of breast cancer is 61 and the average age of death to metastatic breast cancer is 68. This means that half of the women who die of metastatic breast cancer are older than 68 years old ... but too often, the only ones talked about are those under age 50. Even at events that feature those with metastatic breast cancer, her presence is unnoticed. The focus continues to be on those younger than her.
The invisible cancer patient’s life has value, even if she is not seen or heard. She has little to no social media presence and lives a quiet life out of the limelight. Deep inside, though, she feels herself disappearing, day by day, until one day, she is but a memory and an epitaph on a tombstone that reflects the rays of the setting sun. If you listen closely though, you’ll hear her voice in the wind saying, “I made a difference to those I loved and they made a difference to me.”
(The above is a compilation of stories of multiple women who don't fit the young patient model and their frustration with breast cancer agencies using "youth" to generate sympathy for donations. Their impressions are that if a breast cancer patient is older than 50, it's assumed she's lived a full life and that she should be grateful for living that long. Women in their sixties and seventies truly feel a lack of sympathy from the general public that appears to give a general shrug of apathy for their diagnoses.)