When she was diagnosed with cancer the first time, in 1991, Marian Woertz Brawer aimed for a cure.
A New Yorker then, she underwent a lumpectomy and radiation. And she took the drug tamoxifen for five years to keep the cancer from coming back.
It worked. Ten years later, she had moved to Charlotte with her husband, Walter, and was still cancer-free. Then in 2006 the cancer came back.
It had metastasized, or spread, to her bones.
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Doctors called it advanced, Stage 4, incurable.
It meant she would probably need treatment for the rest of her life.
Eventually, she turned to other breast cancer survivors for support, but found she didn't have the same concerns as early-stage patients. She wanted to start a group for women like herself. But she was working fulltime at Wachovia, and didn't have time.
Today, she's on disability leave while getting experimental chemotherapy and is finally organizing a support group for patients with metastatic breast cancer.
She and three other women will hold the first meeting today at Buddy Kemp Caring House, a gathering place for cancer survivors. The center, at 242 S. Colonial Ave., is sponsored by Presbyterian Hospital, but open to anyone.
“The issues are different for patients that are metastatic,” Brawer said. “We are going to be in treatment for the rest of our lives unless they find a cure.”
Brawer has experienced many ups and downs in the last year and a half.
Initial treatment for multiple cancerous lesions in her bones went well. She received two drugs – Femara, to inhibit cancer growth, and Zometa, to prevent bone loss – and radiation to her pelvis.
“I had a really good initial response,” Brawer said. “All of my lesions regressed. Nothing showed up on my next scan.”
For about six months, the cancer was still present, but it was small enough to be undetectable on the follow-up scans.
Then, a PET scan showed the cancer had reappeared in her right hip.
She had more radiation, and by the next scan three months later, the hip lesion was smaller – but two more had popped up.
She tried a second hormone therapy. Six months later, a scan showed more lesions. She tried a third hormone therapy, but the next scan also showed more lesions.
That's when she decided to enroll in a clinical trial, using an experimental drug in addition to standard chemo. During the trial, she gets scans every two months.
“I always feel like I'm living my life two months at a time,” Brawer said.
“If you're Stage 1 or 2 or even 3, you've still got the hope that your cancer's going to be cured. But with Stage 4, you're always living with the treatment and knowing that you've got what is today an incurable form of breast cancer….The reality is much more real to us.”