Elaine Britcher has breast cancer, but it doesn't have her.
"I have a life, I have kids, I have things to do," she said. "I'm not ready for this to end."
The mother of two, who talked with Patch recently over bagels and coffee, was very matter of fact in discussing the disease likely will take her life. She said she knows that cancer plays a huge part in her day to day reality, but is determined that it will not kill her spirit.
The Parsippany resident, 53, received the diagnosis in November, six years ago. At the time, all Britcher knew was that something did not feel quite right.
"I was working at the Interfaith Food Pantry in Morristown, and we were getting into our busy season," she recalled. "It was a Friday, and I decided to take a day off to take care of all those doctor appointments that get put off. I had felt, like, a thickening [of the breast] that summer, and I figured I would wait a cycle or two to see if it went away. It didn't."
Britcher said she had visited her OB/GYN doctor, who recommended an ultrasound. And that November, she went in to have that test, along with a mammogram.
"Afterward, I was sitting in the waiting room and saw a woman I knew, and she was feeling good," she remembered. "She had a piece of paper telling her she was OK. You know how it goes, three things can happen: They give you good news, or tell you to come back in six months or... Anyway, this woman said to me, 'Don't worry, you'll be OK.'"
Britcher wasn't OK.
"When I talked with the radiologist, she looked at my results, but wasn't saying anything," she said. "You know how they try to be gentle because they know, but can't tell you? I was getting a little nervous. Then she said, 'You need to have a biopsy. Like, now.'"
Numerous tests later, including a bone biopsy ("that was quite an experience," she said), Britcher finally received confirmation that her symptoms were "consistent with breast cancer."
Not only did she have breast cancer, but it was at stage 4, which meant that the disease had already spread to other areas of her body.
Britcher said she was at a loss about what to do next.
"I thought, 'I feel as healthy as I did yesterday,'" she said. "I was numb. I don't get sick. A cold, maybe, but that's about it."
She went back to the doctor to find out her options, which were lumpectomy, the surgical removal of the lump, or mastectomy, removal of the entire breast. She was also told that she could undergo chemotherapy or have hormonal treatments, see how that worked, and then, if necessary, have chemo.
Britcher, who said she had no idea what path to take, ultimately decided to go with the physician's recommendation that she have a mastectomy, and made the necessary arrangements, including for reconstructive surgery.
Right before her scheduled procedures, her doctor called to tell her that a further review of her radiological tests showed that removing the entire breast would not be necessary. She decided to have the lumpectomy and to undergo hormonal therapy and wait to see what happened.
She also made the decision to to tell her children—one starting college, the other at Parsippany High School—about what was happening to her and what it meant for the family.
One issue was her daughter, a high school gymnast who needed rides back and forth to practice.
"We hadn't planned to get her a car so soon, but with me having to go in for treatments, her having her own car meant she could get herself to the gym and back. It made life a lot easier when I wasn't up to driving," she said.
Her son was encouraged to go off to college and focus on his studies and his life. She said he insisted on being kept in the loop at all times, and she agreed. Six years later, both are adults, and they are still supporting their mother's efforts.
For the first two years, while undergoing treatment, Britcher continued to work at the Interfaith Food Pantry until she no longer was strong enough to manage.
"My husband said, 'Don't worry about it. We can manage by cutting out some expenses,'" she said. "So I applied for disability, which almost killed me, and decided not to work, which almost killed me.
"It was hard because, people would say, 'Oh, you're retiring, that's great,'" Britcher continued. "And no, it isn't great. I didn't retire so I could go off and have fun every day. I retired because everything hurts. I'm tired. I've got all these doctor's appointments. I need more sleep. I need time to figure out what can make me feel better. And nothing makes me feel better. The best I can shoot for is what makes me feel less crappy. A lot of people don't understand that."
Britcher said some friends simply couldn't cope with her situation, so they walked out of her life.
"Some people had an expectation that they were going to take care of me," she explained. "They wanted to fix it and were second-guessing the choices I was making. I didn't need that. I have a therapist pay a lot of money to talk it through and cry with. I've got an oncologist at the top of his game, who I pay a lot of money to. I can't be fixed.
"I don't believe there is going to be a cure in my lifetime. I don't want to be a downer, but I'm not sure there will ever be a cure."
Britcher said she is not maintaining.
"The cancer isn't doing anything," she said. "The lump was removed, but there is still a spot on my spine. Whatever it's doing, it isnt doing much. It isn't spreading now, so it's all good."
Also good: She noted that she hasn't lost her hair, so the disease isn't immediately apparent to anyone who sees her. Indeed, she looks like a normal, healthy woman, though she admitted that she moves more slowly now and joint and muscle pain limit her ability to tie her shoes and perform certain routine tasks like opening bottles and jars or dealing with buttons and zippers.
And she's still being treated.
"I'll be on the medication until I die," she said. "Right now, it's not doing much, and I hope it stays that way. But I have no guarantees.
"I know there is much to be grateful for, and I am," she said, her smile fading and her eyes filling with tears that she quickly wiped away. "But at the same time, it's like waiting for another shoe to drop. The drug may stop working. OK, well, there are other drugs. I'm on the same drug I was initially prescribed. I've gotten six years out of it, which is amazing."
The Centers for Disease Control says the survival rate for a patient with stage 4 breast cancer is three years.
"I know a small percentage of women are diagnosed initially at stage 4," she said. "Very often the cancer shows up in several places, and mine didn't. Only in the spine and one other spot. But they're not in weight-bearing areas, so it's the best and the worst. It could certainly be better, but it could be a lot worse."
She said what's most difficult is that the cancer isn't causing the pain, it;s the side effects from her medication.
"But what do you do?," she said. "There is no guarantee that if I take another one that it would give the same benefit. It could make things worse. I want to get every second I can out of what's working. I'm already way past the expectations. The worst thing is that it is never-ending."
The best thing, she said, is her solid support system: her children ("they're wonderful, absolutely phenomenal, understanding and helpful"); her mother, who lives across town; her siblings and in-laws in Vermont and Virginia; and her best friend, who accompanies her often to her weekly treatment sessions and "makes this a lot easier."
"I felt like I had let them down somehow," she confessed, adding that sometimes she had the irrational thought that any inconvenience they experienced because of her cancer was her fault. "They said, 'Are you nuts?'"
Britcher also relies on the Cancer Support Community branch in Bedminster, whose mission is to ensure that no patient goes through the experience alone.
"They have these houses that feel like grandma's house," she said. "The minute you walk onto the property, there is a beautiful garden to sit in with big, big wind chimes with wonderful low tones and a library and a big room for [different types of] exercise. They have a number of support groups. I go to the group for advanced breast cancer. Once a month a nutritionist will come in, and they pdemonstrate healthy meals. Nurses come in, an oral surgeon will come and talk about oral health. It's just all kind of different stuff.
"Anyone touched with cancer—adult, child, family member, caregiver—is welcome. It's a safe place to go. There are no expectations, no pressure."
And no bills.
"I've been lucky," she said, her smile returned. "I have good insurance, so pretty much all I've had to deal with are co-pays. And I've been fortunate to find people within the plan who've been very good. I'm also lucky that I'm not living on the disability check. That goes into the pot, but that's not what I'm living on."
She added that others aren't quite so lucky and thanked anyone who donates to CSC and other organizations that help cancer patients.
"I don't know if they realize what a gift it is to people they will never meet. That's a gift... I don't know if it can ever be repaid."
Britcher said she does her best by volunteering her efforts to pen handwritten thank-you letters to donors or to fill goody bags for those who take part in cancer walk-a-thons and similar efforts.
"As a six-year cancer patient, I want to thank you so that you know what a gift it is to receive reliable information, support, occasional hugs, lots of tissues," she writes in notes that go to donors. According to Britcher, it's her way of letting those who give know that their gift is "bigger than they think."
"Whether it's $1 or $5, it doesn't matter," she said. "It all adds up."
Britcher said she likes to share the story of Stone Soup with everyone around her.
The story is an old folk tale that revolves around a village where, unwilling to share food, townspeople start a pot of boiling water, and one person after another adds something to the water until there is a delicious, filling pot of soup.
"Everyone contributes, and look what happens," she said with a huge smile. "Your one hour or two hours or three hours of volunteering adds up to six hours. Added together, you've done what it would take me six hours to do. If you have 10 people and each gives just one hour, that's 10 hours it would have taken for me to do the job.
"If someone gives one hour, it's not a big deal, but to me, it is a very big deal."
Britcher admitted that living with cancer is not easy. At the same time, she said she isn't angry about her fate.
"I don't want to be angry and I don't like to think of it as fighting," she said. "Being angry is too hard and too tiresome. Fighting? I'm taking a pill. With fighting, it's violent. There's a winner and a loser. If I don't win, it's my fault? That whole concept doesn't do it for me.
"I'm happy," Britcher asserted. "It's taken time for me to get there, but I'm happy to share a piece of my body with the cancer as long as it stays where it is. When my kids get sick, it's like, this is what it is. We'll do what we have to do to make it work.
"And that's what this is."