Breast cancer. Two little words you never want to hear. But in an online mums’ group as large as Hills District Mums, it’s unfortunately unavoidable. We’ve wanted to do this story for a while now. It’s so important to spread the word about checking your breasts, yet still, so many women don’t do it on a regular basis.
We’re fortunate to have two incredibly brave women in our community who have shared their stories with us. Nayana and Rebecca are at very different points in their breast cancer journey. Thank you both for taking the time to share your stories with us. We’re astounded by your strength and courage and what wonderful role models you are and we’re truly touched by your positive outlook and determination.
My name is Nayana. I’m a 29 year old mum of two kids. My daughter is three and a half going on thirteen and my son is one and a half years old. I was diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer in June of 2015. At the time, my son was just six months old and my daughter was getting used to having mummy around and more present after the whirlwind that comes with the introduction of a second child. Little did I know that the whirlwind of two kids was going to be nothing compared to the tornado that follows a cancer diagnosis.
Now you might go back to my age and do some maths. Yes, I had just turned 28 about a week before I was diagnosed. I’m sorry, come again, I hear you say. Yes, you read right and that was my first reaction to my GP when she gave me the news. I thought this was something that happens to you when you’re over the age of 60… that’s why all the scans and checks are pushed when you’re over the age of 60 right? Wrong. Breast cancer, like most cancer, doesn’t discriminate. It doesn’t matter how old you are, what your ethnicity is or what you do.
The amount of young women, under 40, under 30, even in their early 20s that have breast cancer is shocking. I learned so much about types of cancers, treatment and the statistics around secondary breast cancers and metastatic cancers. I won’t bore you with all the details but urge each and every one of you to do a self-check every month and make sure that nothing has changed from the previous month. Yes, we are all lumpy and bumpy in our breast tissue, but it’s the changes that are really important to monitor.
And if something is worrying you or just doesn’t ‘feel’ right, go to your GP and request an ultrasound or biopsy if required. Do it for your kids. Do it for your partners. Most importantly do it for yourself. I was diagnosed within two weeks of finding my lump and I’ll never forget the conversation with my breast surgeon about how I was very lucky to have been so vigilant and that I had a good GP who did not dismiss my concerns.
The characteristics of each cancer are very varied. Mine was extremely aggressive and my surgeon drilled home that if I had left it my prognosis wouldn’t be as good. That I was lucky it had not spread to my lymph nodes and affected other part of my body. Despite that, given my young age, my medical team absolutely smashed me with 6 months of gruelling and intensive chemotherapy followed by daily radiation for 6 weeks. My body was exhausted by the end of it; but I was so grateful to be alive to complain about it.
My body is getting stronger every day, and my hair is back in full force. It’s curly now (chemo curls are no fun!), but it’s back! And to the many Hills District Mums that are starting their treatment, you CAN do this, you WILL do this and there’s a whole army of mums in this community who have your back – we even have a Hills Breast Buddies Facebook group for additional support too so join us there!
It was 4pm on Tuesday 8 August 2016. I had joked in a text message to my husband Russ that morning that wouldn’t the 8.8.16 be an excellent birthday for our baby? At 39 weeks, that afternoon Russ and I went for the final appointment with my obstetrician Gary Sykes. “We’re on the home stretch now Bec, how are you feeling?” Gary asked, making chit chat. “I’m a bit nervous about my test results actually, but aside from that, I’m excited to get this show on the road!” I had said, referring to the results of a breast biopsy I requested be sent directly to him. “This must be what you’re referring to” as Gary promptly opened the folded paper on his desk. His composure changed immediately. “Oh dear, this isn’t good news”. Silence. I swear time completely stopped.
“What do you mean?” I asked. Suddenly my mind was filling with every possible breastfeeding nightmare. It’s an abscess and needs to be surgically drained. A cyst that needs to be operated on. I was determined to successfully breastfeed my newborn this time around – breastfeeding my first child had been a nightmare, with five bouts of mastitis in six weeks and being readmitted to hospital with an almost collapsed lung. So when I’d noticed a small lump, I’d immediately thought it was a blocked duct. I’d massaged it in the shower and applied hot towels and it hadn’t shifted. So I’d flagged it with a lactation consultant at the Australian Breastfeeding Association and she’d suggested an ultrasound. Upon seeing the size of the mass, they’d suggested a quick biopsy on the Thursday and here we were on the Tuesday. Nothing could prepare me for what Gary said next.
“It’s the Real McCoy, Bec. You have breast cancer. Stage 2”. No words can explain the shock of that information. I’m 32 years old, 39 weeks pregnant with my second child and no history of breast cancer in my family. Cancer was not even on my radar – it hadn’t even been anything we considered as a possibility, hadn’t even been mentioned! How could this happen to me?
Then I snapped back to reality as Gary took me for an internal to see if I was ready to deliver. It was all a blur. “OK, no need for a c-section. Get dressed and I’ll call the birth unit at Norwest,” Gary instructed. “Our priority right now is to get this baby out so we can start your treatment immediately.” He continued on the phone, “Saturday is too late, do you have anything sooner? What about now? Can she be induced now?”
I glanced to my husband who looked like he’d been slapped across the face by a mermaid’s tail, the poor guy – a mix of shock, sadness and surprise. How was this happening to us? Who was going to pick our daughter up from daycare? What were we going to do with our two cars? I still had to do the grocery shopping. All sorts of trivial things passed through my mind, making the situation feel even more complicated.
We left Gary’s offices and went straight to Norwest Private Hospital. On the way, we called our parents with the bittersweet news that they’d be meeting their new grandchild and that I had stage 2 breast cancer. We cobbled together a plan to get our daughter picked up from daycare and my mum made her way straight to the hospital to be by my side and with my husband as I was induced.
At exactly 2am, our baby boy Aidan was born. He was beautiful and has been the perfect distraction and reminder that this fight is real and very worth it. He is also a reminder of how thankful I am that I was pregnant and paranoid about my breasts and my ability to conquer the breastfeeding beast. I was hyper vigilant and proactively (perhaps obsessively) looking for any lumps and bumps that could be blocked ducts.
Gary Sykes took charge of my medical appointments so we could focus on and enjoy Aiden. He sought professional opinion on the “best breast surgeon” for my circumstances and had his team book an appointment for me with Dr James French. I could tell that in the five days I had been in hospital (only eight days since my initial ultrasound and biopsy) the lump had grown and Dr French agreed, commenting that he could visibly see the lump now. Updated measurements confirmed it had grown from 2.1cm to 4.1cm in 11 days.
My medical team agreed I should do chemotherapy first in an attempt to shrink the lump or stop it growing further. This also gave me some more time to allow my hormones and lactation to settle, and for me to research and assess my options for surgery.
I’m not going to lie, the thought of Chemotherapy frightened me. I was then shocked again to learn they wanted to start by the following week. Having a newborn and a toddler, I wasn’t sure how this was going to work for me and our family. We were warned of some very strong side effects and that I need to be extremely careful of infections, particularly a temperature of 38 degrees or higher. Having a young family and a child in daycare – this terrified me. My head was spinning, but now I felt empowered with answers, a plan and that we were ready to start fighting back on this cancer that was robbing me of the happiness I should be enjoying with my newborn.
The following Tuesday I anxiously attended my first session of chemotherapy with my ‘cancer tribe’ – my beautiful best friend Kim and my rock of a husband Russ. We were all scared and unsure of what ‘chemo’ looked like and how I was going to respond. I was also undergoing an additional treatment that was fairly new known as scalp cooling (or wearing a cold cap) in an attempt the keep my long, thick, curly hair intact. This involves wearing a freezing thermal insulated cap on my scalp designed to literally freeze my hair follicles. I still thought it was worth a shot, especially as my treatment was strong and short – fortnightly for four cycles. I only had to handle the brain freeze four times!
I’ve just had my third (or second last!) chemotherapy session. I still have the majority of my hair – no bald patches at all. Chemotherapy has been very good to me and I haven’t really had any major and longstanding side effects like we were expecting. Russell actually commented to an uncle who called in to check on me, “If she was doing any better we would be entering her into the Olympics!” due to my newfound energy, determination, positive outlook and zest for life. Ironically, I think it’s because I have a newborn and a busy toddler that I’m coping so well – I’m literally too busy to be sick or to focus on feeling sorry for myself. My situation is what it is – I can’t change it and I will not let it define me. I also have an army of incredible support around me and I am so so grateful and fortunate for this.
I am determined to get my story out there to encourage people to be vigilant with their breast checks, pap smears, prostate and skin cancer checks. If my story of a healthy 32 year old in the prime of her life with no family history of cancer suddenly shocks people into action, then I’m more than happy to be an open book. So far, my initial announcement on social media has reached 760,000 people. Over 50 people have contacted me to say thanks for pushing them to check themselves – 5 of these people had confirmed cancerous cells (3 skin cancer, 1 cervical and 1 other breast cancer stage 1). Three PE teachers have used my story in their classes as a topic of discussion around early detection and prevention. This makes me feel like my cancer has a purpose and isn’t just an evil disease that chose to rob me of the early days with my newborn.
In a few short weeks I’ll be taking on surgery, and then commencing radiation therapy. I’m genuinely excited to beat the hell out of this cancer, tackling it head on. It’s not a question of if I’ll survive – I’ve caught this bitch early, and she’s quickly being evicted!
I do need to thank cancer though, because I really feel like I am appreciating life more than ever. Sometimes all we need is that wake up call to appreciate everything we have in our lives and to value those true friends and family around us. I’m also thankful to all the strangers who barely know us, yet insist on helping us or checking in. The community spirit, generosity and kindness of others has been extremely humbling.
Self examinations and the facts
Dr Sarah Bentley, a GP much loved by many Hills District Mums, explains some of the facts.
Breast cancer has a very high cure rate when it’s caught early. In fact, 95% of patients are alive 5 years later when breast cancer is caught early, that is, when it is still confined to the breast. This survival drops to 80% once it has spread to the lymph nodes. So, early detection and treatment are vital.
And you play a vital role in detecting breast cancer. Get to know your breasts. Become familiar with how they feel and how they change throughout the month. Breast cancer is not always a lump. It can be indicated by ANY change in what is normal for your breasts. Whether this be a lump, tenderness, redness, a rash, nipple discharge or even just a new awareness. Not all the symptoms mean you have breast cancer but they do mean it’s worth going to see your doctor and having a proper examination.
It’s worth having your breast examined every time you have a pap smear. Ask your Doctor to show you how to perform a Breast Self Examination (BSE). But above all, don’t be afraid you will do it wrong – you are simply looking for a change and the more often you do it the easier that will be.
If you find a lump or a change, don’t panic. It’s very likely that this is not breast cancer and as I said before, early detection is the key. When you see your Doctor they will want to examine you and most likely order an ultrasound or mammogram. Ultrasounds are ordered if you are under 40 and ultrasounds and mammograms are ordered if over 40. This is not actually determined by age but by density of the breasts. Ultrasounds are not painful at all, and mammograms are uncomfortable but only temporarily and certainly worth it to have an answer.
Above all else, if you are confident there has been a change in your breast and you don’t feel you are being taken seriously, seek a second opinion.