Tell us a little about yourself!
I am 41 years old and a Mum to four boys (ages 13, 11, 9 and 6). I have a wonderful husband who I met way back when we were at school and we’ve been married for over 16 years. We live on a gorgeous acreage in Coledale which I feel so blessed to own. We have fruit trees, a vege patch, chickens and even bee hives. So when I’m not busy taking kids to school, sport or play dates, I can usually be found somewhere outside either wearing a pink beekeeper suit tending to the bees, or spending endless hours in the garden trying to keep on top of everything and attempting to grow some food. I also love to cook and spend a fair bit of time baking treats and making homemade meals for my family. I love to exercise and as a family we are pretty active and spend lots of time at the beach and in the bush. It is safe to say my days are extremely busy and there is rarely a moment to sit down but they are full to the brim and I wouldn’t change a thing.
Tell us about your journey with breast cancer.
Breast cancer is something I’ve had an awareness of since I was quite young. My Nan had it when she was younger and had a mastectomy so it was always spoken about a lot in my family as my Mum knew she had to be careful. Mum was then diagnosed in her early 50s. She had a mastectomy but the cancer had already spread. She had a lot of treatment, including chemotherapy and radiotherapy over many years but sadly it spread to her bones and she passed away in 2010. She was 59 and I was 29 when she died. So, my journey with breast cancer started long before I got it myself.
I have had breast cancer twice. I was first diagnosed when I was 36 years old. I found a lump in my right breast – it was tiny but due to my family history I knew I should check it out. To be honest though, I really thought it would be nothing and was shocked to be told I had cancer, especially at such a young age. I always had a feeling I would get it, but thought I had quite a few more years up my sleeve. At the time my eldest son was 8 and the youngest was 22 months old and still breast feeding so the news that I had cancer was pretty shocking and distressing for all of us. I caught it early and had an operation to remove the lump. I was then due to start a course of radiotherapy but before that happened I found a second lump. Once again I thought I was just being paranoid but figured I better get it checked out. That turned out to be a second primary cancer which means that my cancer had not “spread”, I had just got cancer “again”. So within the space of three months I had been diagnosed with cancer twice. According to the specialist this changed things dramatically as it was obvious my body was genetically predisposed to making cancer. It was likely that this would not be the last breast cancer I would get given my age so it was recommended that I have a double mastectomy. This was really difficult to hear. I felt like I was in the prime of my life and I was going to have to hack my body to pieces and I would never be the same again. It was an extremely emotional time but I knew it was my best hope for a long life. So within two weeks I had a double mastectomy.
About three months later I then commenced a six week course of radiotherapy. Once that was completed I then had to start the journey of breast reconstruction. In the end I had four surgeries and a course of radiotherapy over about 18 months. And here I am. It sounds strange but despite all that, I feel like I got out of it pretty lightly and was really lucky. I had cancer twice but I found both cancers really early, neither of them had spread anywhere else and at no point did I feel like there wasn’t hope. So many people have it so much harder when it comes to cancer.
Where have you found comfort and support?
My family and friends. In particular my husband, Nathan, and my Dad. Nath was there to comfort me and tell me everything was going to be alright. And he was there for our kids when I couldn’t be. My dad had been through it all before with my Mum, so he was able to offer wisdom and insight and knew how to help me. Also my four boys. Life doesn’t stop, or even really slow down when you have little kids around. They kept me going every day. They were the biggest reason in the world for me to fight and keep going even when it all felt too much. And the countless friends and family who helped with kids, made meals, sent gorgeous gifts. The list goes on. Every single one of those people made me feel loved and supported during one of the most difficult times of my life. I will be forever grateful.
What advice would you give to other women who may be going through the same thing?
You are stronger than you think. Women are such forces of nature. I am constantly in awe of women’s strength and their ability to just get it done. Even in the face of cancer. We just figure out what we need to do and we do it even when it’s distressing or painful.
Surround yourself with wonderful people and allow yourself to accept help. As women we often feel we need to do it all ourselves. When you are fighting cancer something has to give… and allowing the loved ones in your life to help you with work/kids/food/housework or whatever else you need will make space for you to focus on you. Take the days one at a time. Be kind to yourself and allow yourself small pleasures. For me it was a coffee every morning on my way to radiotherapy. It made the daily trip to the hospital that little bit more enjoyable.
What has been the most challenging thing for you?
Without a doubt the biggest challenge has been facing my own mortality. Up until my diagnosis I lived my life with the assumption that I would grow old. I took it for granted that there would be time to do all the things I had planned for my life. All of a sudden I had to face the prospect that maybe that would not be the case. Even worse, there was a possibility I would not be around to watch my kids grow and be there for them. It’s a massive mental challenge overcoming something like cancer. Even now, at almost five years cancer free, I still sometimes have doubts about whether I am actually really okay… or is there cancer lurking inside ready to plunge my life into chaos once again and threaten everything. Staying positive can be a big challenge.
Have you found any silver linings that are now present in your life due to your experience?
The biggest lesson for me has been that life is short. For all of us... even those who live to a ripe old age. The years fly by. It is so important to start doing the things you want to do. Start ticking of the list rather than just talking about it. Make memories. It sounds so cliché but once you are gone memories are all people will have. So give them good ones. And nothing is more important than family and friends. It’s the people in your life that make it special. So take the time to spend with them and tell them you love them. I no longer stress about the small stuff. Having cancer has given me a lot of perspective on what is worth worrying about and what just doesn’t matter.
The biggest take home message for me throughout the whole experience is that, when it comes to breast cancer, early detection is key. I had cancer twice. I detected it early twice. As a result I avoided chemotherapy twice and survived to tell the tale. It’s simple. The earlier you find cancer, the better your chance of beating it. So ladies please check your boobs. And remind the other ladies in your life to do the same. Even with my family history I wasn’t doing breast checks anywhere near as often as I should have been. I felt pretty invincible. But I wasn’t. Cancer doesn’t care how old you are, or how healthy you are. So CHECK YOUR BOOBS. Please. It could save your life.
If you are concerned about your family history of breast cancer, you can speak to you GP who may refer you to a Family Cancer Clinic for further information about your risk and the role of genetic testing.
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