For Robyn Lowe, cancer is not a death sentence.
After being told she had metastatic breast cancer in 2004, Lowe has embarked on a mission to spread aw-areness ab-out the disease and to increase ef-forts to support effective preventative measures and treatments.
In the process, she also hopes to show that it is possible to live a full and happy life with cancer – for the millions of men and women like her with Stage IV cancer, life doesn’t have to end with a diagnosis.
The news that she had cancer arrived unexpectedly 25 years ago as she performed a routine self breast exam. With no family history of breast cancer and at a young age, Lowe seemed an unlikely target.
“I guess my reaction was, ‘Uh-oh, that’s not supposed to be there,’” Lowe said. “Within a week I had had it surgically removed and within 48 hours we knew it was cancer. It was very unexpected. I was young – it was not something you anticipate at 32 (years old).”
Lowe immediately began treatments of chemotherapy and a drug called Tamoxifin to eradicate her body of the cancer, but within 10 years, the illness had returned.
After experiencing pain in her lungs, she decided to go to the doctor. Both thought the pain could just be a result of lung damage from the chemotherapy.
The end result, however, was much worse than a minor case of asthma – Lowe’s breast cancer had spread.
“They said, ‘We’re pretty sure you have some type of cancer in your lungs but we won’t know its breast cancer until we do a biopsy of it.’ And that’s not really a fun thing,” Lowe said. “I was fairly certain it was breast cancer and that’s what it showed. The breast cancer had metastasized and was in the lining of the lungs.
Over the next few years, the cancer would continue to metastasize, spreading from her lungs, to her bones and finally into her liver.
By this time, Lowe had been diagnosed with Stage IV cancer. Cancer will now always be a part of her life, which has been forever changed by the disease she had first discovered more than 20 years earlier.
“When you’re diagnosed with it in another organ, it’s what they call Stage IV. Stage IV means there is no cure,” Lowe said. “What you hope for is to put you in that No Evidence of Disease (NED) category and for long periods of time. What doctors’ philosophy now is to try and treat it like a chronic illness because we know there’s no cure.”
Today, Lowe continues to undergo chemotherapy treatments, including oral chemotherapy twice a day and through a port inserted into her chest once every three weeks at the hospital.
Yet despite the treatments and the inevitable side effects that come with it, including hair loss and sometimes nausea, Lowe continues to live her life to the fullest with the mindset that cancer is her new normal but that doesn’t meant it has to hold her back.
This message of hope in the midst of illness is one she is working to spread to a society that generally views cancer as the end of the road.
“There are a lot of people just like me who are living with cancer every single day,” Lowe said. “For us, our focus isn’t on the cure – its on living every day. What we would like to see is things that help us maintain that stable part of the disease. What are things that you can do to keep us living?”
Last week, Lowe received support in her mission from the Huntsville City Council in the form of a proclamation declaring Oct. 6 as “Metastatic Breast Cancer Awareness Day.”
The document passed by the council and approved by Lowe states that “there are approximately 2.3 million breast cancer survivors who are alive today” and calls for increased awareness of the disease in order to help bring about “acceptance, support, solidarity” as well as help in advocating for medical advances.
With so much emphasis placed on finding a cure, Lowe hopes to also shift some of the focus on those who are living with cancer daily and need treatment options to help them continue to enjoy their lives as much as possible.
“For me and why I wanted that day – Metastatic Breast Cancer Day – is because too often I think that is lost in the focus and people don’t want to talk about it,” Lowe said. “I want people to see that you can live with cancer; it doesn’t have to be that you get it and you die the next day.
“When it’s metastatic people think, ‘That’s it,’ and they write you off and that does not have to be the case. We want to focus on treatment to keep us to where we can continue living.”
Throughout her battle with cancer, Lowe has maintained a positive yet realistic outlook on her illness and how it has affected her life.
“You do have to shift what you think of as normal,” She said. “My normal life is different. You have a new normal. But you learn to live with the new normal and say, ‘OK, we’ve made that transition.’”
Yet Lowe has not been alone in the two decades since she was first diagnosed with breast cancer.
She credits her faith, her family and her friends with helping her stand through the hard times and giving her the strength and dignity to enjoy life and live it to the fullest.
“My first anchor is my faith. I am a Christian and for me, that has been a source of comfort and hope,” Lowe said. “My family – I am so blessed. I have a wonderful husband and my mother-in-law cooks dinner all of the time. I’m very lucky. I have a very good support system.”
Lowe also credits her job and co-workers at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice for providing her with support.
While many people see the cancer first and then the person, Lowe said, those in her office continue to see her first and then the illness she is fighting.
“My work family – they are awesome,” Lowe said. “One of the things I’ve been lucky with is that at work, if they see me as the person with cancer, I don’t see that. If I make mistakes, well then I make mistakes. It’s not she makes mistakes because she has cancer. If I do good things, I’m treated just like I was the same as before.”
With so much seemingly stacked against her, Lowe continues to defy the odds as she tackles not only her illness but also society’s perceptions of it.
Cancer couldn’t stop her from enjoying her job for the past 25 years, it couldn’t stop her from enjoying daily life with her family and it couldn’t even stop her from attending her 30-year reunion in Maryland this month.
Lowe continues to exude a contagious confidence and a quiet peace despite the cancer that arose so unexpectedly all those years ago. If anything, she says, it has only deepened her senses of what is most important in life
Yet Lowe is just one of millions of men and women living with metastatic breast cancer. Through her efforts and the efforts of those around her, Lowe hopes that they too may be recognized and understood instead of written off and cast aside.
“There is a subgroup out there and those are women with metastatic breast cancer – there is no cure but we are living every single day with cancer,” Lowe said. “We’re not dying of cancer, we’re living with cancer.”
For Robyn Lowe, cancer is not a death sentence.