Cathy shares her story
June 21, 2018
What is special about my story? I’m only one of thousands of women who have survived breast cancer, so what makes my journey worth telling?
My friend, Anna Scott, took these pictures of me with my daughters after my 3rd round of chemotherapy. I remember the day vividly: I was feeling terrible, the steroids had worn off. I had my chemo on a Tuesday and by Friday, I felt awful. These were taken on a Sunday so I was on the up, but as you can see from these pictures, my children didn’t give a hoot! These pictures tell my story more powerfully than anything else.
I was diagnosed with breast cancer on August 23rd at 3pm, almost five years ago, at age 32. At the time I had 3-year-old Ava, 18-month-old twins, Cara and Fia, I was teaching full time, my husband was working two jobs and we had just finished building an extension on our house. I remember saying at the time, thinking how stressful the previous two years had been, “Come on world! Let’s be having ya!” I felt like if I could cope with what we’d just been through, I could cope with anything….
Juggling all that, it was easy to not pay attention to my boobs, but I became aware of a lump. Although I dismissed it, it was always in the back of my mind. Then one day, I was lying on the floor and one of the girls jumped on me and the lump hurt. I noticed it was bigger than before. Having breastfed three babies, there was not much left of my boobs. When I was lying down, my boobs disappeared into my armpits and the lump was the only thing facing north! I finally gave in to my gut and went to the doctor. A week later I was having a mammogram, two days later a biopsy, 10 days later I was having a surgery. Within just over two weeks, life was turned upside down…
I was diagnosed with Stage 2 ER/PR+ breast cancer in my left breast. The tumour was 30mm in size but was not detected by the mammogram due to my age and density of the breast tissue. Whilst having the ultrasound, I could see a black mass on the screen and by the questions she was asking, I got the feeling things were not right. When I got the call from the surgeon, suggesting I come in a bit earlier as they “had a cancellation,” I knew. He performed a biopsy and rang the laboratory to try and make sure they tested it immediately; it was 2pm on a Friday afternoon. They must have sensed the urgency in his voice as they agreed to look at it straight away if we dropped it down. An hour later, we were back in the surgeon’s office.
That Friday I was diagnosed, my partner and I fell apart. We couldn’t look at each other. It really just couldn’t be. Someone was having a laugh. We got home to our girls (who were hungry and demanding attention!) I remember changing Fia’s nappy and sobbing, wondering if I was going to be around to see her grow up…she giggled at crazy mummy making funny noises. I bawled my eyes out when my sister inadvertently skyped me for a natter. Poor thing got more than she bargained for! We didn’t sleep much that night, both thinking the worst case scenario. But by morning, things were different. I don’t remember consciously making any decision to ‘fight’; it was more a feeling of resignation to the battle beginning - I’m in it, deep breath, let’s go. I got out of bed that morning knowing I was going to get through it. This ‘decision’ was probably the most important one I have made in my life.
Cancer was not going to get the better of me, of us. I was not going to be defined by this sickness. It was just another hurdle to get over. This too shall pass. Sometimes you get to choose your battles and sometimes they choose you. I definitely didn’t choose this one but I chose how I was going to deal with it. Attitude is everything. Even at this early point.
I chose to tell everyone straight away, to be honest. To deal with it head on. I chose to go through two surgeries, a lumpectomy and a week later, due to finding DCIS in the margins of the lump, I had a mastectomy. I chose to not have reconstruction straight away, to wait what became almost two years to have two breasts again. I chose to work part-time through my chemotherapy. I chose to shave my head and to not wear a wig. I chose to be bald in public and at work. I chose to spend three weeks on my own in Palmerston North, away from my family, having daily radiotherapy. I chose to be honest with my children about what was happening. I sat down with 3-year-old Ava and explained to her about cells and how mummy’s had gone a bit bad. I showed them my scars. They picked my prosthesis off the ground for me in the mornings, saying, “Here’s your boob, mummy!” I chose to make it as normal as possible. I chose to have a sickness but not to be sick. Attitude is everything.
There were not a lot of resources for someone in my position to help explain to small children what was going on but we decided on honesty, to a degree. Ava in particular started acting up. She picked up on the negative vibes, she saw mama crying, she knew something was wrong. Once we were honest with her, and ourselves, she was so much calmer. It was like, ok, mummy’s ok with this, I’m ok with this. My cancer ceased to be the centre of our lives; it was just a part of it - as is blatantly clear from this picture!
Throughout all my treatment, I tried not to be a sick person. Don’t get me wrong, I had days where I felt like absolute rubbish. After the surgeries, I was restricted and exhausted, and I looked like Frankenstein’s bride. My hair falling out hurt, which I wasn’t prepared for. People stared and asked to rub my head. After the steroids for chemo wore off, I was couch-bound for two days. My taste buds were shot so nothing bar lemonade ice-blocks tasted like it should. For months (years) after radiotherapy, I was exhausted. I got short-tempered with my people. I cried at the injustice of it all but I made every effort to live a normal life - for my kids, but even more, for me. I saw all of it as a blip, just another thing - this too shall pass. Attitude is everything. I’m convinced that if you decide to ‘be sick’ you will be, more than just cancer.
Having said that, ‘attitude’ doesn’t make you dinner or mind your kids. And there are a few things, without which I could not have done it the way I did. They are:
1.My family, husband and kids, keeping it all real. Life didn’t stop because I was sick.
2.My friends, their support in all kinds of ways: looking after the girls so I could sleep, taking pictures so I didn’t forget, and treating me like a normal person and making me laugh.
3.The staff at my school who cooked dinner for us for about three months!
4.The PINC and Steel program which provided free physio for rehabilitation, funded by Breast Cancer Foundation NZ. I cannot stress enough how important this was to my recovery.
Almost five years have passed since my diagnosis. I had my last surgery in December last year to reconstruct my breast. I’m on Tamoxifen for at least another two years (possibly seven!) Am I back to “normal”? No way. Will I ever be? Probably not. Am I ok with that? To be honest, not really! But is there any point dwelling on it? None at all.
I’m reminded every day in some small way that I’m not as I was before: a lack of energy, the scars in the mirror, the still-recovering eyebrows, the short haircut I’d never have dared to sport before I shaved my head.
Cancer happened to me and my family. And cancer is gone. It has left its mark, but it is gone.