Maura Bivens does not like December, not since 2007. December is when she was diagnosed with Stage 4 breast cancer.
The Summerlin mother of three was very active, taking Pilates, yoga and studying tae kwon do — after eight years, she’s a second-degree black belt — and raising three children. Then she found a lump on her left breast. It was little, probably a false alarm. After all, she’d just had her annual checkup six months before and everything was fine.
“I thought it was a lot of hoopla over nothing,” she said. “I don’t have a history of breast cancer in my family at all.”
She went to the doctor and tests were ordered. At one of them, Bivens asked the technician, “Is there ever anything you ever see that makes you go, ‘Uh-oh, this is not good?’ “
The technician answered that any time she saw fingers coming out of the tumor, it was bad. When the doctor came in for the next test and said the tumor looked “splayed,” Bivens realized things were more serious than she’d thought. She had to wait weeks for her next test and then weeks before a biopsy could be done.
“It grew so quickly during the diagnosing stages, it was small (originally), the size of an M&M, and then by the time it got fully diagnosed, it was 2.5 centimeters,” she said. “… When I meet people who are newly diagnosed with breast cancer, I tell them, ‘Right now is the hardest part.’ Because everything takes so long, you don’t know what you’re dealing with. You don’t know how bad it is.”
Surgery had to be delayed until after the new year. Her husband, Mark, went online to do research.
The biopsy gave them answers. She was diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer, which accounts for 15 to 20 percent of all breast cancers. It does not have receptors that respond to hormone blockers or traditional medications.
According to breastcancer.org, five-year survival rates tend to be lower for triple-negative breast cancer patients. A 2007 study of more than 50,000 women with all stages of breast cancer found that 77 percent of women with triple-negative breast cancer survived at least five years, versus 93 percent of women with other types of breast cancer. Another study of more than 1,600 women published in 2007 found that women with triple-negative breast cancer had a higher risk of death within five years of diagnosis, but not after that time period. The recurrence and survival figures in these and other studies are averages for all women with triple-negative breast cancer. Factors such as the grade and stage of the breast cancer will influence an individual woman’s prognosis.
Because Bivens’ cancer was so aggressive and had spread to her lymph nodes, she underwent four months of chemotherapy. She lost her hair and most of her eyebrows. There was constant nausea.
“I thought it was the worst thing I’d ever gone through,” she said.
After it was finished, she was too weak for an operation. Surgery followed in June 2008, a double mastectomy with reconstruction done at the same time. Lymph nodes were also removed. That was followed by radiation treatments in August.
Bivens said 2008 “wasn’t exactly a banner year, but it wasn’t as bad as 2010. I was incredibly looking forward to having my life back. I believed that we’d gotten it because the chemo killed everything, the surgery was double protection, and the radiation was, like, triple protection. So I thought we were done.”
She said 2009 was good, and Bivens reclaimed her life. Her hair began growing back, and she was able to do things with her children. A routine checkup in December changed all that.
“That’s my magic month,” she said. “The X-ray found a shadow on my left lung.”
Further testing revealed she actually had two tumors — one in her upper right lung and another in her lower left lung. Bivens said she figured they’d conquered it once, so they’d do it again. Four months of aggressive chemotherapy followed.
Mark’s research led him to the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, a top facility in Houston. He sent his wife’s files to the doctors there for a second opinion. They told him she had only 12 to 18 months to live and should spend all the time she had left with him and their children. He was shaken when he relayed the news to her.
“I didn’t know what to think,” she said. “I had this number in my head of seven to 14 years. I don’t know where that came from. I pulled that out of the air.”
Three months of chemotherapy followed. By August 2010, one of the tumors was on the move again. Her doctors at Comprehensive Cancer Centers of Nevada wanted her to try something new, the CyberKnife. It involves a concentrated beam of radiation that is targeted only on the tumor.
“It totally demolished the tumor, and then the other tumor started acting up, so we did it again and ever since then, I’ve had no evidence of cancer, since March of 2010,” she said. “I guess God’s not done with me.”
Bivens will always be considered Stage 4. She said she knows the cancer may return.
“My doctor told me, ‘Do not miss one single family reunion, one wedding, because we do not know, we’re in No Man’s Land right now,’ ” she said. “It’s taken me quite a while to get used to living again because I’ve been so used to dying. So, now I’m living again. I will buy the large package of things. I will buy green bananas.”
She is also back to volunteering at her children’s school, Givens Elementary, and and has signed up to help her daughter’s theater class at Palo Verde High School.
She and Mark went swimming with dolphins and went on an African mission, where they helped at a Liberian orphanage. She has participated in fundraisers for Susan G. Komen for the Cure and takes phone calls from women who are newly diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer.
Stephanie Kirby is executive director of the Southern Nevada affiliate of Susan G. Komen for the Cure.
“She’s definitely a survivor, even though she hasn’t conquered it,” Kirby said. “It’s something she’s still dealing with. Unfortunately, it’s something you’re never able to get rid of.”
But for Bivens, she still has the number in her head of seven to 14 years.
Contact Summerlin/Summerlin South View reporter Jan Hogan at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-2949.