I'm 'living with' cancer, not dying of cancer

Breast cancer has dealt Angela Litterick-Biggs a death sentence.  But the Wellington woman refuses to accept defeat and lives her life with an energy and passion that’s truly extraordinary.

It was Angela Litterick-Biggs’ worst birthday ever.  On the day she turned 41, only a couple of years after her mother died of cancer, Angela was told she had breast cancer. 

A week later she was told that the cancer was incurable. It had spread from her breast to her spine.  Doctors could not cure the cancer.  They could only try to control it. 

Vivacious, fit and previously healthy, Angela was shell-shocked.  “It was just so surreal.  The situation was just so serious – there was a real risk my spine could have collapsed and I could have been left paralysed.  It was so hard to take it all in.  I was an emotional mess.”

Angela had sought medical help because she had been experiencing back pain.  She thought she had pulled a muscle in her back and was puzzled as to why it was not getting better.  A few months after she first experienced the back pain she found a lump in her left breast.

Her specialist told her the cancer was so advanced that a mastectomy was not an option.  So for the past four years, Angela has endured a succession of treatments, including radiation therapy, surgery and various chemotherapy drugs, in a bid to curb the spread of the cancer. 

These have helped, but they are usually only effective for a short time.  When they no longer work, she moves onto another treatment.  Even so the cancer has continued to spread, from her breast and spine to her bones.

Living with cancer

“I have experienced a lot of pain over the past few years. At times, I was in excruciating pain. But I also became quite pragmatic about what I needed to do to try and be healthy. 

“And I did a lot of research into what I could do to help myself.  I looked at evidence-based therapies and worked out that support groups could help me. I also learned that the mind is a powerful organ – staying positive is crucial.”

Angela had only recently moved to Wellington when she was diagnosed with advanced breast cancer.  She knew very few people and so the various support groups she joined became a life saver.

“You know, there are actually a lot of people in New Zealand with cancer and a lot of them are doing really well.  At the beginning, I joined online support groups, but now I belong to a couple of groups in Wellington and it’s so great to speak and share with other people who are going through the same thing as me.”

Angela says she’s slowly come to terms with the fact that she has a disease inside her.

“Sometimes it’s just really hard and sometimes I spend a lot of time crying.  It’s frightening and scary at times, but it’s not all doom and gloom. Cancer is just a label - it’s not who I am. I know that cancer will get the better of me, but I can still live my life the way I want.  I am living with cancer, not dying of cancer.”

Angela has made a pact with herself that if she’s ever feeling blue for more than three days she calls a friend to talk about what she’s going through. 

“Sometimes that can be hard because I don’t always like asking for help, but I know it’s really important to ensure that I’m mentally and emotionally strong.”

Working and finding love

Another saviour is her job. Angela has worked full-time ever since she was diagnosed in 2008.  She works as an educational psychologist for the Ministry of Education and is passionate about her challenging and rewarding career.

“I work with children who need intensive help in the education system and I just love my job! I’m working because I still have something to contribute and I also have a very busy mind so I need to be doing something.  And I have to pay my mortgage,” she laughs.

The 45-year-old says she would love to meet a man to share her life with, but it’s hard to find the right guy when you have incurable cancer.

“I have tried internet dating and I had some success, but as soon as they find out you have cancer they run for the hills.  It’s really hard because I really would like to meet someone.”

Angela says some friendships have also been difficult as people have struggled to see past the cancer or to make allowances for the fact that she’s not always available or healthy due to medical treatment.

But she says she’s been touched by some incredible people over the past four years. She says organisations like BCAC are fantastic for women with breast cancer and the Step by Step support pack is a great resource.

“My message would be one of hope.  There are a lot of people out there who understand and who will help you no matter what.  Whatever you are going through and however hard it is, you can still live your life your way.”