“I am 43 and a wife and mother. I have breast cancer. I did not have any symptoms but went for a mammogram anyway, and thank goodness I did, it probably saved my life.”
I cannot emphasise enough how important a mammogram is in the fight against breast cancer. I believe that early detection is vital until they find a cure or even better a preventative measure. On February 13 2013 I went to see my doctor as I was having some issues with my cycle and felt I needed to see a gynaecologist. I asked my doctor to book me in for a mammogram as well, thought I might as well get all my womanly bits checked out for my own peace of mind. What came next was a complete shock to the system, and my journey began there.
This is my story: On Thursday 21 Feb 2013 I went to the Oxford Clinic for a gynae appointment, and was recommended to have a laparoscopy for suspected endometriosis. This was worrying for me, but not life threatening, I recall telling the doctor about my next appointment for a mammogram, and telling her how we check our cars every six months with a WOF, so why shouldn’t we check ourselves. At the time I was so sure that I had nothing wrong with my breasts. I had no symptoms, no lumps, no family history, except a cousin with breast cancer diagnosed back in 2010, who had a lumpectomy, and a friend recently underwent a single mastectomy, so I guess they prompted me to get checked out just in case. So off I went for my second check-up of the day, and had my mammogram and I was told that I would get the results from my doctor in a few days.
On Friday 22 Feb I was telephoned from the clinic that I was required back for some more pictures, that there was nothing to worry about, that it was quite common for this to happen. So on Wednesday 27 Feb, I was back at the clinic for more pictures. Once the pictures were taken, I was told I needed an ultrasound, just to look a little closer at something, which was done straight away. Once I was laying on the bed for my ultrasound, I knew something was up. And sure enough, they had found some things. In fact I had a lot going on in my breasts, which I was completely unaware of. I had lots of cysts in my right, a couple they wanted to check further, and a suspicious area in my left, which they needed to look into further.
On Monday 8 March I was in the MRI machine - a totally new experience for me - which was to get a better picture of what was going on, and they did get a good clear map of things, and showed the left lump very well and also something attached to that. My next stage of the journey was some biopsies. I had three biopsies each in three different lumps. This was quite a worrying time, however, I stayed positive as I read that it is rare that these are cancer, they could all be benign.
It was on Thursday 14 March that I met with the surgeon and was told I had ductal invasive breast cancer in my left breast. Thankfully the right lumps were benign. However, my left breast was not so straightforward, and I had an extension to this main lump that was also suspicious. So I had a needle biopsy via the MRI machine, which was important to have for me, as I wanted to save my breast if I could. Finding out if this was cancer meant the difference of keeping or losing my left breast. The results were atypical, so I decided with all the info we had, that I wanted a lumpectomy, and to save my breast.
On 24 April, I had the surgery. I had to go for a hook wire biopsy before the surgery that morning, so the surgeon knew where to go, and the day before I had a lymphoscintigraphy, which was where a small amount of radioactive dye was put into my breast to locate the first lymph node. They took the first nodes and tested them to see if they had cancer in them. All went well, and I woke up without a drain, my lymph nodes were clear, and they only took three out. So after recovery, I had more results to come, to find out about the margin of the tissue they took, the hormone receptors and the HER2 receptor.
Turns out with all the pieces of the puzzle together now, my final diagnosis was ductal stage two cancer, PR/ER+, HER2-. The margin was clear, so they got it all out, and no more surgery was required: they saved my breast. Radiation therapy and hormone treatment was part and parcel of the deal. I opted for no chemotherapy, as my cancer was slow growing. The chemo was not going to be that effective and only gave another 1% of it coming back, and I felt the side effects were not worth it. My radiation treatment was for four weeks every Monday to Friday.
There is a lot of terminology I have mentioned, mainly as I threw myself into the New Zealand breast cancer website and learnt all I could, so that when the experts talked to me, I knew what they were talking about; that was a comfort to me, and just how I handled it. All the people throughout the whole process have been wonderful, caring people. I felt completely looked after and have come through the other side, with more than I could have hoped for in the results, and more knowledge to help others. It’s a very scary thing to go through, and every person is different and will go through a wide variety of tests, processes and results.
If I had to give some words of advice, I would just say what worked for me, which may or may not work for someone else. I got through, with being very open about my breast cancer diagnosis, accepting the reality of it, learning as much as I could, and following the experts' advice. Having a network of people who you trust was essential for me, and my friends (the yaya sisterhood) kept me going, with humour and fun. My husband supported me, took me to every appointment, was there for every test, and that was so important. So if it cannot be a partner, make it a close friend or family member, but do not go through this alone. I shared my experience, and that helped me get through.
One thing that the doctors and oncologists don’t tell you is the myriad of feelings that you will go through, before, during and after, from diagnosis to recovery to well beyond. You will get scared, then worried, then brave, then depending on which way things go, you will get angry. These are all stages of feelings of grief; your brain will go berserk. My advice here is talk about it, get help, and find ways to handle it. I found things to keep my happiness levels up, I exercised (I found swimming very good), read books, ate well, kept drinking my wine, kept laughing and kept positive. I tried to get back to normal as fast as I could. If my mind got away on me, and it does lots of times, then I would pull myself back into shape, and say, “Worry will not help me, so stop it right now!”
Take one day at a time, is the best advice I can give. If I had not gone for a mammogram, I may not have had the chance to live beyond my 50th birthday, if I had waited until 45 for the national breast screening, it would have been too late for me. So the $137 I paid to go privately at the age of 43 was the best money I have ever spent. I hope I beat this. I will never know until years have gone by, and I don’t know what is around the corner, but I intend to live each day with zest and vigour, joy and laughter, and make this experience worthwhile, if I can help others get through. There are many wonderful women who have survived this, and some very wonderful women who have not, and my heart goes out to every one of them.