It seems like I’ve been revisiting that morning in the surgeon’s office a lot lately. After we talked about the fact that I felt pretty sure I wanted a double mastectomy, my surgeon confirmed the other thing I’d been thinking– that I would need chemo. My oncologist would talk to me about the specific drugs I needed, but my surgeon told me that I would have the option of doing chemo before or after surgery. Again, she advised me that neither option had been shown to increase overall survival. Again, almost instinctively, I told her that I wanted neoadjuvant chemo– chemo before my surgery.
It’s not uncommon to have the opposite reaction. Many women have a “get it out” kind of reaction and want surgery as soon as possible. But I knew that the only reason a patient receives chemotherapy is if there is a chance that even one teeny cancer cell has escaped past the original (removable) tumor. I couldn’t handle the thought that even one little cell was setting up shop somewhere else, growing and spreading even more while my body was healing from surgery. I didn’t want to wait a few weeks for surgery and then at least six more weeks to heal before I could start chemo. My oncologist agreed that was a reasonable conclusion, but also pointed out that she liked the fact that it would enable her to watch how my tumor responded to the chemotherapy in vivo— that is, in living tissue. (Discovering I was a scientist early in our first meeting, I wonder if she knew how much the words in vivo would mean to me as a scientist? In vitro studies– cells in a dish– are crucial to the research process, but artifacts come along with the artificial environment, in vivo studies have so much more validity.) With breast cancer, tumor dormancy is always a big fear– that there are some cancer cells that can somehow evade chemo and sit dormant for years before they begin to grow again and cause distant metastases that can take a patient’s life. We know, in general, that triple negative breast cancer responds well to the chemo regimen I would be taking. But if I had neoadjuvant chemo, we would get to see how MY triple negative tumor responded. My oncologist and I agreed, if even one cell of viable cancer made it through chemo, I would do another chemo regimen after surgery. If that one cell could survive, maybe another one, one that managed to escape my breast, survived, too. Being able to see how my actual cancer cells responded to the drugs gave my medical team such valuable information. The only thing the pathologist could find in the breast tissue removed was some scarring– he could see where the tumor had died. Every last cell was dead. Of course, there are never any guarantees, but a pathological complete response after neoadjuvant chemo is the best scenario I could have imagined after hearing the words, “You have cancer.” If I would have had surgery first, and then chemo, it’s likely that the chemo would have been just as effective. But with the original tumor removed, I wouldn’t have the confidence that the words “pathological complete response” have given me. It’s always good to be in a good place, but it’s so much better to know that you’re in a good place, so that you can truly appreciate it.