Debbie's story

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Debbie's story

Debbie's story
Kim Tuliau chats to Debbie Hill about her breast cancer journey

Kim Tuliau from Bobbi Brown, Farmers, has always admired the strength and courage of client Debbie Hill, a breast cancer survivor. She invited her in for a complimentary makeover so she could find out more about her story.

I’m Debbie Hill and I carry the BRCA Gene. My sister was diagnosed with breast cancer in her early 20s, she passed away from the disease at 34. My mother also died at the age of 34 of a different type of cancer. My aunt (my mother’s sister) has survived breast cancer.

Tell me about your journey - when were you diagnosed with breast cancer and how did you find out?

I was diagnosed ten years ago, aged 39, at my annual mammogram (which I started doing when my sister passed away). The BRCA gene wasn’t known then and I didn’t really hear about it after I was diagnosed. It was three weeks from when they found the lump until I had the first of many surgeries. The lump grew a centimetre in three weeks so it was a fast growing cancer.

What form of treatment/s did you receive and how long was your recovery?

I had three surgeries within a space of a year. One to get the cancerous lump taken out. Then they found the cancer had gone to my lymph nodes so they decided to take the breast off. Then after 6 months of chemo and 6 weeks of radiotherapy I had the other breast taken off and reconstruction of both breasts. The recovery of the first two surgeries was about 3 weeks and the removal and reconstruction surgery was about 12 hours with 6 weeks recovery. Chemo was tough. I think in some ways I am still recovering from it; I still get tired, forget things, and find it hard to contrate. It’s a slow process and I think I’ll always have issues but I do feel better as time goes by.

What motivated you to keep going during recovery?

My kids, family and friends were my motivation, they kept me going. The thought of seeing them grow, get married, have kids of their own and wanting to be there for all their milestones kept me fighting.

What advice would you give to women about regular 'self checking'/mammograms etc?

My advice would be to start self-checking early - many people are getting diagnosed with breast cancer while reasonably young. If you’re unsure about anything don’t leave it, get it checked right away. Time counts.

What advice would you offer other women recently diagnosed with breast cancer?

Knowledge is power. Find out what you can and take your time going over all the information to make the best decisions for you. Take a support person to your appointments as they tend to take in more information than you will. Have a notebook so you can write questions and information down and never think that your questions are silly. Everyone’s journey is different and every body deals differently to surgery and treatments. Listen to your body and take time to breath, deal and heal. Ask for help but don’t feel you have to take it right away, it will always be there when you're ready. Make sure you have really good support networks around you and if you are feeling overwhelmed make sure you use them.

What advice would you offer to friends and family who are supporting a loved one going through cancer?

Be patient with them, listen, let them cry on your shoulder if that’s what they need. They will have good days and bad days but just be there for them. Try and treat them as normal as you can. Normal is what we want/need as this helps us get though the day. Make meals, do some housework, take them out for a coffee/lunch/dinner if they are up to it but most of all just have a laugh with them. They are still the person they were before cancer. I had a really good friend who came and had coffee with me as I was struggling and her advice to me I will always remember; she said you have every right to feel sad, angry and to cry a lot but Debbie you let yourself be like that for a few days and then you pick yourself up and you get on with things. It was the best advice I got.

Has having breast cancer changed your perspective on life?

I don’t know how it wouldn’t change your perspective on life; it did when my sister passed away and when I was diagnosed it really made me put all my ducks in a row. I so appreciate still being here to be with my husband and kids. Cancer’s changed my physical self but I always had the attitude that the only choice I have is to get on with things. When I feel sorry for myself (and there are still days when I do) I jthink how so very lucky I am to still be here and have had all the support from my amazing family and friends. It’s made me try new things. I started making greeting cards and now have a Facebook page I sell them from, and I do the Christmas markets and I donate some of the profits to breast cancer, giving back is now something that I feel I need to do.

Have you accessed any programs or support from Breast Cancer Foundation NZ and did you find them to be helpful?

Breast Cancer Foundation NZ are amazing, I had access to a lot of support. I went to a program aimed at breast cancer patients called Pink Fit, it’s a one on one exercise programme run at Otago University. It helps so much with your physical health but also your mental too. I also had counselling and attended a support group.

Are there any other comments or advice you would like to offer?

My only other advice is tell people what you need. If you need to be left alone, let them know. If you need to be around them, let them know. Your support network are not mind readers so unless you tell them what you need at that time they won’t know. Be kind to yourself and ask for help, it’s not a sign of weakness or that you’re not coping, it just means you need help at that time and place. Also remember that breast cancer can be treated successfully so if you have any concerns get it checked. Time is a huge factor is beating this disease.

October is Breast Cancer Awareness month and we encourage everyone to sign up for the Pink Ribbon Walk, a major fundraiser for Breast Cancer Foundation NZ and proudly sponsored by Estee Lauder Companies.