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By Linda Hanssen
Edited by Barbara Bigelow
I was 54 years old and training for a sprint-distance triathlon when i noticed that every time my right foot hit the ground I got a momentary sharp pain in my right breast. While I briefly thought of breast cancer, I wasn’t too concerned since I had a clear mammogram just five weeks earlier. I was eating right, exercising, not drinking alcohol, and there was no history of breast cancer in my family. Even so, I did call my doctor. That was the first step in what felt like falling down a long staircase. Each appointment was another blow from another step. Just as I started to deal with one, I hit another: there’s a lump; you need to see a specialist; you need an ultrasound; you need an MRI; there’s something of concern on your scan; you need a biopsy; you have breast cancer; you need a chest x-ray; you need a CT scan; you need a PET scan; there’s a suspicious spot on your liver; you need a liver biopsy; you have metastatic breast cancer; there’s no cure; you’re going to be in treatment the rest of your (short) life; you need chemotherapy; you need surgery to implant a port; you need radiation; you need a mastectomy; get your affairs in order; start spending the money you saved for retirement; YOU’RE GOING TO DIE SOON! They didn’t actually tell me that last part, but it was what I heard under everything they said.
That was 11 years ago, and I’m still here, and still going strong. I enjoy spending time with my adult daughters and with my friends. I like to garden, read, and walk. I enjoy traveling from Wisconsin, where the winters are dark, cold and snowy, to Florida, where the winters are sunny and the beach warms my soul. My children and my oncologist are in Wisconsin so while it’s tempting to spend more time in Florida each winter, I won’t become a “snowbird.”
Four years ago I went on disability and retired from my career as a patent attorney, where I spent many hours handling lawsuits that claimed patent infringement. My exhaustion and other side-effects of the drugs I’m on made it impossible to keep working at the fast pace I needed to maintain in my high-stress job.
Retiring gave me the chance to spent more time with my three daughters. My oldest is teaching me all about gluten-free cooking. My youngest let me help her plan her wedding, which was delayed by Covid, giving us twice as much to plan. I spent the most time with my middle daughter, as she had a disability and needed a lot of help. She passed away unexpectedly on Thanksgiving, 2020. My retirement gave me lots of time with her, and I’m glad I had that opportunity. I enjoyed every minute spent with them. You will have to ask them if they felt the same. I was also able to spend more time traveling - at least until Covid. I was thrilled when I got vaccinated and could head down to Florida. Wisconsin is cold in the winter!
While I loved my career, it was time to find something else to be passionate about. I found that new passion when I got more involved with some breast cancer organizations, including METAvivor. I joined theAdvocacy Committee and am the State Captain for Wisconsin. In this role, I help METAvivor encourage our lawmakers to enact laws that help those of is with MBC. For example, METAvivor is working to increase the amount of research money allocated to MBC. Additionally, METAvivor is working to change the waiting periods so that those of us with MBC qualify for Social Security Disability Benefits and Medicare when we get an MBC diagnosis. This would be a huge change. As the law stands now, MBC patients can’t receive Social Security Disability Benefits until 5 months after diagnosis, and can’t receive Medicare until 24 months after that. For some of us, that wait is unreachable and the high cost of cancer treatment impossible to pay. I’m happy to know that through my work for METAvivor I can help others dealing with this terrible disease. It’s one of the few positive things about having metastatic breast cancer.