Age at diagnosis: 37
Family history of breast cancer: yes
Stage 1, lobular breast cancer, estrogen positive
My husband and I are both GP’s, so we were fortunate to be well informed about options for looking after our own health, in particular the importance of screening for disease. Several members of my family have had breast cancer, so I elected to start screening for breast cancer in my early 30’s. My breast cancer was first discovered when I was 37, using Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) in Coffs Harbour. Prior to this I’d had a number of mammograms and ultrasounds which didn’t show any cancer. Subsequent mammograms and ultrasounds also didn’t show this cancer – it was only visible using MRI. This created some difficulties for the surgical team, and the first attempt at removing it was unsuccessful. When I had another MRI a year later it was still there and had grown slightly, but it remained invisible on mammogram and ultrasound. Fortunately it was still relatively small and didn’t appear to have spread, so after careful discussion with my cancer specialist and surgeon I decided to have a bilateral mastectomy at age 39. The surgery was successful in removing the cancer, however there were a number of complications including life threatening bleeding. I ended up receiving 9 units of transfused blood, got to try the super comfortable beds in ICU, and required another 5 operations to complete the reconstruction of my breasts. I fought through it, healed and am alive and thriving with my husband and my kids, and so far I’m cancer free.
Living in a small country town presented a few challenges to treatment, as it involved multiple trips to Sydney – difficult with 3 young kids! We’re fortunate to have excellent medical care in nearby Coffs Harbour also, but for people living in more remote areas of the state, accessing care becomes much more difficult. GP’s have an important role in facilitating this care, including accessing travel assistance schemes to offset the costs involved. I say “offset”, because it certainly doesn’t cover all the costs, and people living in rural areas end up paying more to access the same level of care and support enjoyed by those in the capital cities.
I have felt very much blessed and lucky through my breast cancer journey which many people might think sounds strange. For many, getting cancer is something they think of as ‘unlucky’. But for me, modern imaging (MRI) offered me the chance to find my cancer early. Modern surgery offered me a chance to live cancer free. Modern medicine and the generosity of Australian blood donors saved my life. As a doctor I have a real understanding of the years of research by so many dedicated teams, and the millions of dollars that have gone into making all of this progress possible. Add that to the love of my family and the support of my community, and of course I feel incredibly blessed!
I heard about “So Brave” earlier this year and was immediately keen to get involved. So Brave is a project that makes a calendar each year from vibrant photographs of body-painted young breast cancer survivors. It seeks to raise awareness of breast cancer in younger women, and raise funds for research. Breast cancer in younger women carries a higher risk of death because it is usually detected at a much more advanced stage than for women age 50-70 who routinely have screening mammograms. There are ways to improve early diagnosis in young women and I really wanted a chance to raise awareness of this in our community. I have a love of face painting; So Brave really combined these two passions for me and the 2018 calendar is focused on rural women around Australia. Monday 15th of May was my “paint” day to start putting this into action. The So Brave team of Rachelle Panitz and body paint artist Wendy Fantasia spent eight hours body painting me, followed by three hours of photography by our local artist Jay Black at the Never Never and on the Bellinger River. It was a fascinating process for me as a face painter, a little scary as all good mischief is, and overall a fun and fantastic experience. I will be doing events under the So Brave banner over the coming 18 months locally to remind women how to do breast self examination each month, talk about what to do when you find changes, and hopefully get women discussing their family history with their GPs so that MRI screening can be accessed more by those who need it most. And of course to sell some calendars, raise some funds and have some fun!