We need our mom

Josh Turnage Contributor
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Four and a half years ago, my mom was diagnosed with Stage II breast cancer.

Doctors immediately treated her rare and aggressive “triple negative” form of cancer with six months of intense chemotherapy. She also underwent a double-mastectomy and reconstructive surgery.

My mom, then only 44, had spent her career as a registered nurse. So she was used to taking care of others, but had a very difficult time adjusting to the toll the cancer treatments took on her body and lifestyle. Before, she was full of energy; during the countless rounds of chemo, however, there were days when she couldn’t even get out of bed.

Especially heartbreaking was that my mom was told by doctors to limit her contact with others — even her husband and children — to avoid getting an infection. This meant my little sister, adopted as a newborn from China only two years before, could only watch from a distance as her mom slowed down, lost all of her hair, and cried out in pain.

A year after the initial diagnosis, our family was dealt another blow: mom’s cancer had spread to her right lung. This meant the disease had metastasized and she had Stage IV cancer. In other words, it had become incurable.

Although we knew mom didn’t have many options, we were hopeful that a new medicine called Avastin — which had just been approved by the FDA — would be an effective addition to her chemotherapy treatments. Optimistic as we all were, none of us could have imagined that after only four rounds of the two treatments, all signs of mom’s cancer would be gone.

But it was. Mom’s doctor said he couldn’t even find a trace of it.

Since January 2009, my mom has been on an Avastin-only regiment. And she is cancer-free.

Given that it helped save my mom’s life, you can imagine how upset I was to hear that Avastin might lose its FDA approval for treating breast cancer. How could this happen? Because a panel of 13 experts — only two of whom are breast cancer oncologists — advised the agency to do so. This panel acknowledged that Avastin was effective for metastatic breast cancer — but ultimately didn’t think its benefits were strong enough.

Thanks to Avastin, my mom is not just alive — she’s cancer-free. How is that benefit not “strong enough?”

On December 17, the FDA will rule on its advisory panel’s recommendation. If Avastin loses its approval, insurance companies and Medicare would be allowed to consider denying coverage for Avastin. My mom’s time is already limited enough; we need that time with her, not fighting the insurance companies.
So far, according to the electronic petition to keep Avastin FDA-approved that my mom set up with her friend (whose wife also suffers from Stage IV breast cancer), over 9,500 people agree.

My mom still has days when fatigue overwhelms her, but they are few and far between. Most of the time, we’re able to forget she’s sick. Earlier this fall, she helped my brother move into his college dorm. My mom is able to spend long afternoons at the neighborhood park with my little sister.

For the first time since her initial diagnosis, life for my mom, my dad, my brothers, and my baby sister feels normal again. I just hope the FDA doesn’t take that away from us.

Josh Turnage is a sophomore at Mississippi State University. A video he produced about his mother’s fight against breast cancer can be viewed here: http://bit.ly/bXlUFB. Over 9,500 people have signed his mother’s petition to stop the FDA from revoking Avastin’s approval to treat breast cancer. A copy of that petition is available at: http://bit.ly/dvprpD.