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I'm Still Standing by Lisa Valentine, A #MetsMonday Featured post #metastaticbreastcancer #MBC #breastcancer #advocacy

I’m Still Standing by Lisa Valentine – A #MetsMonday Featured Post

I’m so pleased to share a new #MetsMonday featured post. This one comes from one of my favorite fellow bloggers, Lisa Valentine. Lisa shares about her sister’s recent death from metastatic breast cancer and how the experience has impacted, and continues to impact, her family.

It’s always been my goal to share this space with others impacted by MBC whether they be partners, caregivers, siblings, children, friends or, of course, individuals themselves living with MBC.

Thank you, Lisa, for sharing your voice at Nancy’s Point. Be sure to leave Lisa a comment or ask a question in the comments.

I’m Still Standing

by Lisa Valentine

I’m still standing. Walking, running, enjoying family, and holding a job too. I’m still alive. My sister Mary Jo is doing none of the above. She died on June 16, 2019, two months short of her 62nd birthday.

Her spirit lives on in many ways, but her physical body was ravaged and killed by spreading cancer cells that treatments, also ravaging her body, could no longer stop. Sooner or later, metastatic cancer wins. 

If you are a fan of Elton John, like many in my family are, you will recognize that “I’m Still Standing” is also the title of one of his many hits and a meaningful conclusion to the recent biopic Rocketman.

My husband and I went to Rocketman just days before Mary Jo died. I had been to visit her, 800 miles away, in mid-May. When we said our goodbyes, we knew they were our last physical and earthly connections. Her final words to me included, “I hope this doesn’t happen to you.”

“This” is metastatic breast cancer (MBC), the cancer that kills over 40,000 women and men each year.

That statistic often angers me, as too much pink and too many trying to profit from the emotional aspects of breast cancer have detracted from the efforts to find a cure for MBC. The death toll has remained relatively unchanged for nearly four decades.

The number hit home so much harder when my sister became one of the 40,000. 

I do need to state that I appreciate the advancements that have come. I benefited from some in my own treatment for breast cancer in 2008, including Aloxi, an anti-nausea drug, and Oncotype DX, a test to determine the need for and possible effectiveness of chemotherapy. I speak freely, not in hushed tones, to those who wish to know more about my treatment and surgery experiences, and why I opted to have no reconstruction following bilateral mastectomies. 

Breast cancer is more openly talked about, but MBC still gets the hushed tones.

We need to get loud about it and about death and dying. Loud, like my siblings and I tend to get with laughter and conversation when we gather.

One of us is silenced now. Our grief is loud. 

Though the tide is starting to turn in terms of money going to research, it isn’t enough. Not nearly enough. Especially when it comes to metastatic cancer.

Millions and millions of dollars have gone into the BC machine, but what has come out of this machine has too often ignored advanced disease and trivialized the experiences of those who live with, and die from, breast cancer. Many well-meaning individuals and organizations have unwittingly hampered progress.

If awareness had truly been effective all these years, more people would know what MBC is, more money would have gone into research, more progress would have been made to solve the mysteries of MBC, and maybe fewer would have died. 

I have seven sisters and five brothers. Mary Jo is the first to die. (I took some comfort that she died on Father’s Day. On some level our father, who died in 1998, was there to greet her.)  

There is a gaping hole at #6 in the birth order now.

We beat the odds for a long time, surviving life on a farm, teen driving, risky behaviors, alcohol abuse, mental illness, close calls in many ways. It was just a matter of time, and now that time has come. It doesn’t make it any easier. Siblings are extra special people in our lives. We share more genetics and history with them than we do with anyone other than our parents and children. I am deeply blessed to have the connections I do with my siblings and their families. 

Before Mary Jo died, between her, my sisters Zita and Leonice, and I, we had over 40 years of cancer survivorship. Zita was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2004, Mary Jo in 2006, me in 2008. Then, Mary Jo had a different, primary lung cancer in 2010, and Leonice was diagnosed with uterine (endometrial) cancer in 2017.

There are scars, missing body parts, chemo stories and much more in this sisterhood. 

Zita, Mary Jo and I each had early stage breast cancer on our initial diagnoses. Statistically, about a third of those with early stage BC will go on to have metastatic disease.

That statistic just played out with my sisters and I. Zita and I remain diligent, and this is where research also needs to be diligent.

What can be done to identify this doomed third earlier, before the death sentence of metastasis?

Mary Jo was almost 62 when she let go of the pain and struggle and found the peace she so deserves. She had also beaten the odds with her nearly nine years of lung cancer survivorship. She had more years of life than many get. 

That is little consolation to her husband. They didn’t quite reach their 35th wedding anniversary. It was on June 23, a week to the day after she died. Tell that to her daughter, who didn’t get to celebrate her milestone 30th birthday with her mom. That came on June 21, five days after Mary Jo died. Tell that to her other daughter, her sons-in-law, and her seven grandchildren who won’t have any more birthday and holiday celebrations with Nana. 

Tell that to my siblings and me, to our mom, to Mary Jo’s friends and co-workers. I can’t pick up the phone to call Mary Jo or send her a note or package in the mail anymore. Pictures of her wide smile and saved messages that capture her voice are small comfort when set against the raw grief for her suffering, her shortened life, for all she will miss experiencing with her husband, daughters, grandchildren, friends, us.

Each number in that 40,000 has similar stories of those left behind, missing their presence, their unique personality.

I’m still standing, and with that I have a responsibility.

I have a sister to honor and grieve, and a cause which needs my energy and support. When we are able, my husband and I have donated money to METAvivor. All donations go to research grants surrounding Stage IV, advanced disease. Breast Cancer Action  is another reputable organization I support. They are behind the “Think Before You Pink” campaign and many other activist endeavors. Both these organizations have the necessary focus and raise the right kind of awareness that brings true change. 

I am part of Dr. Susan Love’s Army of Women and encourage others to join. The goal is to help researchers gather useful data and to locate research subjects to fill studies in a fraction of the time it used to take. (Both those who have had and not had cancer are welcome in this army.) 

I am also so proud to have been part of the “Voices of Hope” DVD project that our local breast cancer support group helped create. Thousands of copies reached patients and caregivers and the videos are now available on our website Voices of Hope

Below is a picture of my seven sisters and I from the last time all eight of us were together. Left to right we are: Lisa, Ruth, Zita, Leonice, Ann, Mary Jo, Danita, and Aileen.

It was April of 2018, weeks after Mary Jo received the confirmed diagnosis of metastatic breast cancer. We talked and laughed a lot, drank plenty of coffee and ate plenty of food. And for the first time, individually and collectively, we also let the full impact of her diagnosis sink in. 

I'm Still Standing by Lisa Valentine, A #MetsMonday Featured post #metastaticbreastcancer #MBC #breastcancer #advocacy #pinkisnotacure

We felt the precious and fragile nature of life and our time together. We gave cancer the finger and gave our hearts to the time we had and the rough road ahead.

Cancer has taken so much from my sisters and I, but it won’t take our spirit of sisterhood and our love for one another. 

I’m still standing.

What am I doing today to take care of my own health and to help the cause of supporting those with MBC and moving closer to a cure? 

With my words, I seek to honor Mary Jo and the others who have died from metastatic breast cancer. I also seek to motivate and energize us all to take actions that move us forward in meaningful ways. 

BIO:

Runner, writer, recovering alcoholic, wife, mother, grandmother, friend, and sister, are some of the roles I am blessed to have in my life. The picture below was taken on 9/8/19 as I prepared to start my 17th marathon. I am wearing the pink ribbon hat that Mary Jo sent me when I was diagnosed in 2008. It is one of the very few pink ribbon items I ever wear. 

I'm Still Standing by Lisa Valentine #MetsMonday #MBC #metastaticbreastcancer #advocacy #breastcancer #research

The sign covers my flat chest, but this is how I always run, saving the prosthetics for work and other social outings. Speaking of work, I am a licensed school counselor, working primarily with middle school students. 

I have been a writer all my life; a poet with thousands of poems, a blogger with thousands of blog posts on my Habitual Gratitude blog, as well as opportunities to write a newspaper column and guest blog posts like this one. 

I am a native Iowan and proud of it! My family and I currently make our home in another great state–Minnesota. 

Be sure to like Lisa’s Facebook page and follow her on Twitter. And definitely check out her terrific blog, Habitual Gratitude!

Take a few minutes to read another earlier guest post by Lisa, The Sum of All My Parts. It’s a favorite of mine.

To get more articles like this one delivered weekly to your inbox, Click Here! #KeepingItReal #SupportYouCanUse

What would you like to ask Lisa?

Has metastatic breast cancer impacted your life and if so, how?

Whether blood and/or cancer brought you together, how do your sisters help you when it comes to dealing with cancer?

12 thoughts to “I’m Still Standing by Lisa Valentine – A #MetsMonday Featured Post”

  1. I’m Lisa’s sister, Zita, and I enjoy your blog Nancy and I especially like the job Lisa did in this guest post. We really need to have greater awareness made of MBC and try to get more research dollars for this deadly disease. You and Lisa do your part in this. Keep on writing!!

    1. Thank you Zita! You are one of my faithful readers and I appreciate it! I still remember the day in April of 2004 when you called to tell me you had been diagnosed with breast cancer. My response was something like “Are you kidding?”
      and you said “No I’m not.” That was the start of what has become a growing family history of cancer, and especially breast cancer. It’s hard sometimes to think back to what we were like before cancer came calling. You didn’t ask to be a frontrunner in how to handle cancer, but you did show me how it can be gotten through, and I needed that when my turn came. Here’s to more years to share sisterhood.

      1. I appreciate your comment Liz. I encourage you to join Dr. Susan Love’s Army of Women too. It’s easy to sign up and then you decide from there how much you want to do. I find that I feel less helpless if I am doing even small things to take action. The family picture is cherished, and so bittersweet. Thank you!

  2. I love you. I love your life’s work. I love that I get to witness and be a part. I love the voice you raise and the awareness brought forth by it. I love our family and I will fight fiercely with you. Thank you, Lisa. ♥️

    Thank you, Nancy, for this platform to share and unite.

    1. Thank you Katie! Loving fiercely helps us fight fiercely when needed, and let go fiercely when needed too. As one of my 14 nieces, and one of the oldest, you have witnessed your aunts’ cancers play out through your own adult lens. You are the next generation that must live with a strong family history, hyper-vigilance, early screenings and fear. It is for you and the next generation that we need to keep working for a cure, working for some leverage against MBC. Thank you for your courage in walking side by side with your aunts, even when the path has been full of grief. Raise your voice too, and not just in song 🙂

    1. Thank you Judy and back at ya! Judy and I have worked together for nearly 20 years. She has known me before, during, and after cancer came into my life and listens to me tell my stories about it. Cancer patients need good listeners.
      My colleagues were supportive of me all the way through my surgeries and treatment. One of the most humbling things I have ever been through is the kind generosity of my co-workers. For several months as I underwent chemo and my final surgery, they provided weekly meals for my family and I. I will never forget the gratitude, and also a strange mix of other emotions, that accompanied those meals. Cancer humbles us in ways that are hard to describe.

  3. Nancy–thank you so much for inviting me to write this post. Mary Jo’s death is still fresh. I process grief, and lots more, by writing, making this a helpful endeavor. I think about the kinds of “sisters” that I have come to know as a BC patient. You and other bloggers who tell it like it is, who don’t skirt the tough stuff but plow right into it, have helped me so much! Keep up the genuine work and writing that make Nancy’s Point such a good blog, and not just for those with cancer. Onward!

    1. Lisa, You’re so welcome. It’s truly my pleasure. Sharing this space with fellow bloggers and advocates like you is important to me. Sharing our stories about how MBC has impacted us is one very important aspect of advocacy. Your words (here and on your blog) do indeed honor Mary Jo and all the others. I’m sure they also do motivate anyone who reads them to take meaningful action. So, thank YOU! And thank you for your kind words. Onward indeed!

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