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John Keatley/BCRF

Research is the reason I have today. But I want tomorrow.

Given a metastatic breast cancer diagnosis just months before the pandemic, Melissa Thompson shares why we need to “defy the odds” for patients like her

At just 32 years old—six weeks after giving birth to her daughter, Poppy—Melissa Thompson was diagnosed with stage III breast cancer. After multiple surgeries, months of chemo, and several in-patient stays, in 2017 Melissa began hormone-replacement therapy to try to reduce her risk of recurrence. 

Then, five years later in November 2019, Melissa, now 37, woke with the most intense abdominal pain she had ever experienced. Thinking it was appendicitis, she rushed to the emergency room and was sent for scans. When the radiology nurse approached her bed, “the look on her face made it obvious she wished anyone else had been assigned to speak with me.” Melissa read the results:

“There is an expansive mixed sclerotic and lucent bony lesion involving the right transverse process and pedicle extending into the vertebral body of L4. Further evaluation recommended.”

Searching “lucent bony lesion” online, Melissa quickly realized it was related to her cancer and emailed her oncologist. Melissa had metastases in her bones on her spine and, she would later find out, her lung and several lymph nodes. Throughout December, she was in the hospital nearly every day for additional scans and procedures and new injections and frontline treatments. 

“I asked my oncologist: Can you get me to my daughter’s high school graduation?” Melissa said. “She wouldn’t answer except to say, “We monitor and we treat, monitor and treat.”

Faced with the reality that metastatic breast cancer has very few treatments, Melissa said she lives in an in-between, going back and forth between being committed to living and committed to dying.

“Obviously, I do not want to be in the latter circumstance, but that is reality,” she said. “The reality is that there is no cure.”

Poppy, her spirited, empathic, loving five-year-old daughter, is always on Melissa’s mind. Melissa spends hours—often in the middle of the night when she can’t sleep—preparing Poppy a written and digital legacy through letters, emails, and videos. She is sending recurring calendar invites to her loved ones to “Call Poppy” and setting them to repeat indefinitely. She’s asking friends, former colleagues, and people from her past to write Poppy letters about what her mother was like when they knew her. She’s culling through photos and making scrapbooks. She’s trying to mother her daughter when she’ll be motherless.

“I'm trying to instill in her that she is brave, strong, smart, and resilient—and that so many people love her,” Melissa said. “I don’t want to lie to her, but I don’t want to scare her.”

For Poppy’s COVID-19-style preschool graduation, Melissa spent days making handmade decorations: “congratulations” banners that ran the length of the car, cheerful signs with notes on the back, colorful balloons. Poppy beamed with pride and joy, her head poking out of the sunroof and waving to her teachers. Her husband asked Melissa why she was spending so much time on decorations for the five-minute car parade.

“My answer was: Without a cure for metastatic breast cancer, this might the only graduation I’m here to see,” Melissa said. “I preserved those decorations to use for her next graduation, so she feels my presence in those precious moments no matter what.”

Just before Melissa got her metastatic diagnosis, she said she felt momentum in cancer research—like the disease could be cured in her lifetime. Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, threatening breast cancer research funding and the breakthroughs researchers are on the cusp of realizing.

But, Melissa notes, it is not too late to find that momentum again. Her life—and the lives of the estimated 168,000 people living with metastatic disease in 2020—depend on lifesaving research. 

“My family history of breast cancer started with me, and my biggest wish is that it will also end with me,” Melissa said. “We need to defy the odds and expand research. It’s the only hope I have to live to see my daughter grow up.”

Read more personal stories about breast cancer from BCRF’s Research Is The Reason campaign here.

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