Can Patients with Early-Stage Breast Cancer Skip Chemotherapy?

Author: Lei Wan

Editors: Whit Froehlich and Shweta Ramdas

My mom was diagnosed with cancer two years ago. She had early-stage breast cancer: tumor size of less than five centimeters, fewer than three cancer-positive lymph nodes in the armpit region, and no cancer-positive lymph nodes nearby. But hers was also an aggressive type of cancer. At the time, I was a graduate student in the States and my parents lived in China, so we talked on the phone every two days about the progress of her treatment. She received surgery, radiation, a tailored drug treatment, and chemotherapy. My mom is tough and stubborn. Most of the time she just mentioned the good news that the cancer had been eliminated. Occasionally, she would say that her life was changed by the cancer treatment: for example, she had to quit her job.

I was shocked by my mom’s diagnosis. She is always physically active and mostly eats vegetables. I barely recognized her after the chemotherapy. She had lost 30 pounds and all of her hair, her skin was pale, and her nails were purple. Her face was unrecognizable because of the weight and hair loss, and she looked almost 20 years older.

My mom is cancer-free now, but she is not the same person that she was. Her appetite is half of what it was before, and she cannot lift heavy things. As a graduate student studying cancer biology, I had learned that chemotherapy would cause side effects like the ones I saw in my mom, including hair loss, vomiting, and nail loss. However, until my mom’s physical appearance and life were transformed by chemotherapy, I didn’t realize the magnitude of its impact on patients. Looking at my mom, I wish that we had better options for patients with early-stage breast cancer so they don’t have to suffer these devastating side effects.

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