Age at diagnosis: 39
I was 39 when I found what I thought was an identical second lump in my left breast. The first lump I had found at 35 in my right breast which turned out to be benign. I remember the relief from hearing my breast surgeon telling me then that it was ok. I also remember seeing a young woman in the empty waiting room with her partner and mum. I got the sense that her news wasn’t positive. I left the building that day like a huge weight had been lifted off my shoulders. I never dreamed I’d be back in that same waiting room 4 years later but this time wearing her shoes.
I wasn’t even going to bother getting the second lump checked. It felt identical to my other one so I self-diagnosed it as nothing. I felt fine, a bit tired but I don’t know any parent that isn’t. Six weeks went by and a chance visit to the GP for something else and I casually mentioned it and my previous benign lump. She sent me for a mammogram and ultrasound and it was then that I had a feeling that things weren’t great. The ultrasound technician stopped chatting and looking me in the eye. She knew but couldn’t tell me. My GP didn’t confirm my fears either but booked me in to see the breast surgeon a few days later at 8.45am Monday 26th October. Three little words that morning and my busy world came to a grinding halt. “You have cancer”
A chaotic week of tests, biopsies, appointment, scans, meeting my oncologist – my head was spinning. Our house, which was once a place of laughter and fun, had become so melancholy. We were all so scared, especially my two little girls. I bought every book under the sun suitable for kids about mums and cancer just so they knew they weren’t alone. We cried together, all of us scared for the unknown ahead.
Ten days post diagnosis I was sitting in the chemo chair having my first of 16 rounds. Chemo was a cycle of feeling horrendous, feeling better, then going back to start the cycle again. My hair fell out after 3 weeks. I cut it short, then shaved it off to try and make it less of a shock. I looked like an alien, bloated from the steroids and even more so when my eyebrows and eyelashes fell out. I wore a wig only when I didn’t want to be seen as a cancer patient. They are so bloody hot and itchy!
Six months later and chemo was finished. 5 weeks of radiation was next. “It will be so much easier than chemo” my oncologist said. How wrong could someone be?! I HATED every minute of radiation. It was clinical, cold, awkward, painful, dehumanising and I had to go back day after day for 5 weeks while burns slowly developed on my body. I never thought I would ever say it but I desperately wanted to go back to chemo! I thought I was alone in hating radiation but so many of my “breast cancer buddies” have said the same.
After radiation I had a break, my hair was long enough to not wear a beanie, I could go back to school functions & shopping centres without the fear of getting sick. My mum could get some of her life back. Life started to get back to “normal”.
Surgery was the last thing on the immediate list for breast cancer treatment in August 2016, almost a full year since diagnosis. I had complete faith in my surgeons but it didn’t stop me from worrying that I wouldn’t wake up. I had an 8 hour left mastectomy and full axillary node clearance, with immediate DIEP flap reconstruction and reduction mammoplasty. The recovery was long, slow and excruciatingly painful. The silver lining is that I got the small boobs and flat stomach I had always wanted. Be careful what you wish for because you may just get it! A couple more minor surgeries followed but by the end of 2016 I was done.
As my cancer was hormone positive, I was put onto ovary suppression monthly injections and daily Exemestane tablets. Oh those side effects – brain fog, hot flushes, sweats, bone and joint pain, neuropathy in my feet. I have to take Exemestane for ten years and I’m a year and a half in. Lucky I’m not marking off any calendars!
In April 2018 I had another surgery to take out my ovaries and fallopian tubes to stop my monthly injections and also to reduce the risk of the cancer coming back. Cancer treatment is as much a mental game as it is a physical one. Being a cancer patient can be a lonely place, even when you are surrounded by people.
Cancer never leaves you. The fear of it returning – every ache, every pain is a metastasis and a death sentence. Every scan brings anxiety. Every time I hear of a newly diagnosed person, it takes me right back to Monday October 26th 2015 @ 8:45am. Some days it’s harder than others to stay positive but it’s so important to find the collateral beauty. There wasn’t a bluer, more perfect sky, than the day I left hospital after my mastectomy. Seeing my girls doing things they love, having their friends over, laughing with my husband about silly things. I choose to live now – to travel, explore, sign up for body painting calendars. I’ve learnt that you only get one shot at this life and you don’t get to dictate the timeline. That’s the gift of cancer. I’ve met some amazing people since being diagnosed. I’ve joined a breast cancer Dragon Boating team, started a new career. In the end, all that matters is that I am still here, choosing to embrace life, choosing to be the best me possible in spite of my setbacks. Life is amazing – it’s perfectly imperfect.