Bridget was diagnosed with breast cancer at 46, a year after a mammogram came back clear. Here, she shares her story…
Earlier this year, I noticed my right nipple was bleeding, so I went to my GP and asked if it was something to be concerned about. She was very blasé, said I had probably just bumped myself, but I got a mammogram and then an ultrasound, followed by a biopsy.
I’d actually had a mammogram done in March the year before, which had come back all clear and another one done when I was 40, as I’d always wanted to be vigilant. My mum died of ovarian cancer when she was 50, so I was always concerned – I felt like there was something to be worried about.
On 24 February, I was told they had found DCIS and that because it was in multiple places that I would need a mastectomy. That word was horrifying, as that surgery is quite radical. I came to terms with my diagnosis quickly though, and the mastectomy was scheduled for 16 March – one week before we went into the Level 4 lockdown for COVID-19. The COVID situation had been starting to build before my diagnosis, so I was lucky to get the surgery when I did, because things were going a bit crazy.
A week after the surgery, my pathology results came back and it turned out that I had invasive breast cancer, which was stage 2. The tumour was quite unusual as it was diffuse; instead of one tumour, it was spread over a 7cm area. The cancer had also just reached my lymph nodes – of the four removed during my surgery, they found a speck of cancer in one. I’ll never forget that phone call; it was such harsh news and I was also told I’d need chemotherapy and radiation therapy.
I started chemo four weeks after my surgery, with my first round on 17 April. I had chemo during lockdown, which was surreal. I was meant to have four rounds, which would’ve finish in June, but it was cut short as I had nerve damage in my legs from the treatment. After my second round, I begun feeling tingles in my feet and they got really cold, which slowly spread up my legs over the next cycles, so my team decided to end chemo after three rounds.
Chemo was absolutely brutal; it was the most gruesome thing I’ve ever experienced medically. I struggled with fatigue and I had lots of muscle and bone aches, as I had to inject myself with a medicine that would stimulate my bone marrow and white blood cells. I had to do that the Sunday after chemo and it brought on a lot of nasty pain. I had very long, thick dark hair and I was so scared of losing it, so I tried scalp cooling with the Paxman machines, as I had treatment at a private hospital. I did lose quite a bit of my hair, but I didn’t go bald.
The most challenging aspect of treatment is the emotional rollercoaster of it and the threat it poses to your feminine identity. You lose your breast, hair, eyelashes, all the things that make you feel feminine – that’s been really hard. The invasiveness of treatment was hard to deal with too, with the constant blood tests. I developed a real fear of needles by the end of it.
After chemotherapy, radiation was a walk in the park. The only irritating thing was that I had to go in every day for treatment, which only took 10 minutes. It caused a lot of disruption to my schedule; trying to balance work and everything was quite difficult.
I drew constantly during treatment, which felt like a good outlet for expressing what I was feeling every day. I didn’t feel like writing; there’s something natural to me about painting and drawing for capturing different moods and feelings. Looking back, they tell a story through time. I’ve kept doing it a little bit since then, but I’m also busy adjusting to a new job.
Now that I’ve finished treatment, I’m feeling great but I’m going straight back into surgery. I tested positive for the BRCA2 gene mutation, so I’m getting my ovaries and the other breast removed. I’m getting it done so I don’t have to ever worry again, as the chances of getting cancer are high with this gene. When I got the results of the test back I thought, when is the bad news going to stop? This has been the process for my journey: waiting for the worst news, led to believe one thing then surprised with another. Throughout it, I’ve reminded myself of Angelina Jolie’s story and how she had a preventative mastectomy, and for me, that’s been great to read about her story. I know she’s a distant figure, but that really helped me – if I could thank her personally, I would. I have my last surgery on 17 August and, once the surgeries are behind me, I’ll be on my way.
I’m looking forward to spring and to regenerating myself, as once I was through treatment I felt really depleted. My hair, eyelashes and eyebrows are growing back and I’m getting stronger. I’m looking forward to the next chapter and trying to feel optimistic.
For others going through the same journey, take it one day at a time and be really kind to yourself. Connect with others who have been through it and share your stories, because there are so many women going through this and most are so private about it – I was too. Make good use of the resources that are available. I was lucky as my whole team of people were so caring: the oncology nurses were the best I’ve had in the health system and my physio’s advice helped me with keeping fit and being strong.
If I had advice for other women, I would say to always get an ultrasound with your mammogram as the mammogram didn’t pick up anything about my cancer. And if you have breast cancer in the family, especially if it’s your mum or your close female relatives, get genetic testing. It’s not a difficult test and it’s non-invasive; it’s a powerful piece of information every woman should know. Had I known what I know today, I could have not become a cancer patient.
Bridget, now 47, lives in Auckland. She has two children, a 20-year-old son and an 11-year-old daughter.