Just last year, Lauren Hicks was in college at MSU and OTC with a 4.0 grade point average and dreams of becoming a doctor.
She had nearly 100 hours of physician shadowing under her belt. The day before she took the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) Hicks developed a bad pain in her abdomen.
The otherwise healthy 29-year-old told herself it was probably an ulcer and tried to ignore the pain.
“I gave it six weeks to see if it was an ulcer. It wasn’t going away,” she said. “I had a CT scan in the emergency room and that showed my liver was actually full of lesions and then there was a mass in my left breast.”
When the ER doctor tried to explain what he saw in the scan, Hicks said she didn’t believe what he was saying.
“I was like ‘No, no I don’t. There’s nothing there,'” she recalled, laughing. “I told him, ‘How about you check my GI system?’ I’m like, ‘Check the other parts of my body. I don’t have anything in my breast.'”
Though she can laugh at how silly she might have sounded to the ER doctor, Hicks doesn’t find much humor in her diagnosis: stage 4 metastatic breast cancer.
Metastatic breast cancer means the cancer has spread from her breast to other parts of her body. There is no cure for stage 4 metastatic breast cancer, Hicks explained.
“I don’t think initially I understood exactly what stage 4 meant. I mean, you know it from a knowledge and education sense,” Hicks said. “But then whenever you are given the diagnosis, it’s like a disconnect between knowing what it is and you actually having it.”
With October being Breast Cancer Awareness Month and pink ribbons seemingly everywhere, Hicks — like many women with stage 4 metastatic breast cancer — said she finds all the “Save the Ta-Tas” and “Fight Like a Girl” messaging to be frustrating.
“My number one pet peeve is the message that is communicated with breast cancer awareness, just the cute slogans like ‘Save the boobies,’ ‘Save the ta-tas,’ ‘Save second base,'” Hicks said. “There’s women, there’s humans behind these ta-tas, behind these boobies. There’s lives involved. There’s careers involved.”
In her view, those types of slogans give the impression that breast cancer is all about “just saving the breasts” and that “fighting like a girl is pretty, like the color pink.”
Today at age 31, she is responding well to treatment and feels and looks good. She said people often comment to her that she doesn’t look like she has cancer or they assume she can have a mastectomy, undergo chemotherapy and be fine.
“People (tell) me, ‘My grandma had breast cancer 20 years ago and she’s doing just fine. You’ll do just fine, too,'” Hicks said. “I don’t fit the picture of a cancer patient. And a lot of stage 4 women and men, they don’t because the treatment is easier because the goal isn’t to cure. It’s just to prolong your life.”
Oct. 13 was Metastatic Breast Cancer Awareness Day. Hicks said she’s poked around on several breast cancer support websites and only found information about the earlier stages of breast cancer.
“I don’t see anything about actual stage 4 breast cancer,” she said. “I don’t know why. I don’t know if it’s just the sad reality of breast cancer. Maybe it’s evidence that — despite all the pink you see and all the word of breast cancer awareness — there’s still women dying.
“There’s a lot of information just missing regarding stage 4, and I feel like it’s because organizations just don’t like to talk about it.”
Hicks said she’s found a lot of information and support from an organization called METAvivor.
According to METAvivor.org, only 2-5 percent of the funding for breast cancer research is dedicated to metastatic breast cancer or finding solutions to extend the lives of MBC patients. METAvivor advocates to “shift the public discussion and prompt action” for the disease.
Hicks wants to encourage women who are 40 and older to please get their yearly mammograms.
“There’s lots of women that are diagnosed like me at 29. I wasn’t at the age of being able to get a mammogram,” she said. “They don’t do mammograms on us. And so if your doctor has told you to get a mammogram, at least do it for us that didn’t have the chance to be diagnosed in an earlier stage.”
She also wants young women to be aware that they can also get breast cancer and to start having conversations about early detection with their doctor.
“Do your self breast exams. See a doctor at least once a year to have a clinical breast exam, which is when a medical provider will do a breast exam,” Hicks said. “Ask your family if you have any family history and let your medical provider know because that could change when they want to start mammograms.”
Other than a paternal grandmother, Hicks said she doesn’t have family history. However, she had leukemia as a teen. Her oncologist believes her having leukemia as a child might have played a role in her developing metastatic breast cancer.
Hicks had genetic testing soon after her breast cancer diagnosis. They looked at genes that can increase risk of breast cancer as well as cancer in general since this was her second cancer diagnosis prior to turning 30. Her genetic testing was negative and considered normal.
“This was a relief because if I had a gene that made me more prone to developing cancer, my brothers could have also had the gene,” she wrote in an email. “I’m happy they don’t have to necessarily worry about being at an increased risk of cancer.”
She put her plans to become a physician on the backburner and is instead trying to travel as much as possible.
Because she is responding so well to her first line of treatment, she and her husband, Lance, bought a camper so they can continue camping and hiking while she is able.
She uses a treadmill regularly at home so she can maintain strength and endurance for hiking.
“We’ve been camping a lot in Arkansas,” she said. “We’ve done three- and four-mile hikes. I just want to keep that up as long as possible.”
She intended to spend this year traveling, but 2020 had other plans.
“We were able to go to Orlando in January, and I went with my best friend to New Orleans in February,” she said. “And then COVID. We had to cancel several trips.”
“I’m hoping a vaccine comes out or something so that we can get back traveling,” she said. “I do not want to live the rest of my good days in my house.”
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