I’m Kristeralla’s proud Mum (proud of her that is!), and a breast cancer survivor. I want to thank her for taking the initiative to ‘go pink’ and asking me to write this article.
My discovery and diagnosis came like a bolt out of the blue in late January 2000. I had been to my GP this particular day about something else and decided, laying in bed that night, to examine my breasts – I found a sizeable lump in my right breast.
I was surprised, and a little shocked, but with no family history of breast cancer, I didn’t feel overly concerned. I remember thinking that by morning, it might have gone! So I waited until then to tell my husband. His reaction was more urgent than mine, “well you had better go to the doctor quickly”. Within a couple of days I had a mammogram and ultrasound. As my GP worked part-time, I didn’t get the results until some five days later. She opened the envelope in front of me and exclaimed, “I’m so sorry!” The words of the report stuck in my mind, ‘indicative of an invasive tumour’. Obviously, I had to have a biopsy to confirm the diagnosis, and two days later it was confirmed that I had breast cancer.
My husband and I spoke with a wonderful woman surgeon on the Saturday morning and it was agreed that I would have surgery the following Tuesday. It was decided I would have a lumpectomy followed by radiotherapy. I was incredibly relieved that I did not have to have a mastectomy or chemotherapy!
The difficult part – how to tell my children? Kristarella was a mature 13 year old, and my younger son was 8 years old. I remember telling my daughter that I had breast cancer and had to have an operation, but the good thing was, I wasn’t going to lose my hair! Somehow, I felt that was reassuring (to both of us), and the whole situation wouldn’t seem so serious.
I felt relatively calm at this time and assured that there was a reason for this happening. I am not sure the reason has been revealed yet, if indeed there is just one reason. I am inclined to think it is a work in progress and the experience will help me to help others in a number of ways. One thing I am sure of, is that God has his hand on what has and is happening.
Perhaps, surprisingly, I never really felt angry. However, it did not stop the ‘what ifs’, and for a while, the tears flowed and my life flashed before me. I started thinking about my funeral service and what songs I would have! Thankfully, this didn’t last, and by the time I was operated on and told the surgery had gone well, having removed a 2cm x 2cm lump, I was feeling much more positive.
I received the results of the tumour some five days later, and was told by the oncologist that because the tumour was high grade, I would, in fact, have to undergo chemotherapy, as well as radiation. The good news was, there was no sign of cancer in the lymph nodes removed from under my arm.
Whilst in hospital I underwent bone and body scans to see whether there were signs of any other tumours, but all was clear. I remember a very dark moment during one of these scans, when the ‘medico’ was going over my liver. She kept going back to a particular spot. I began to feel very uncomfortable, and asked if something was wrong. She said there was something she was unsure of and would have to ask the specialist. I was left lying on the table, on my own, for what seemed an interminably long time and really broke down. I thought, “oh no, don’t tell me it is in my liver!”, feeling that would be the end. It wasn’t (in my liver or the end) – praise God!
I decided that I was going to take the time in hospital and during my treatment to step aside from the world and concentrate on reading spiritual and encouraging words. This I did, and I believe it helped to keep me strong. There are Bible verses I clung on to and recited time and again. It was also helpful to read the journeys of other women who had been through breast cancer.
My chemotherapy started about three weeks after the surgery. The first session was quite daunting, and I kept waiting for some awful reaction to take place. That evening, I felt quite strange, but did not become ill, as I thought might happen. Although I experienced feelings of nausea and extreme tiredness (and some depression) during my six months of chemo, at no time was I physically sick. I’m sure this was due mainly to the excellent anti nausea drugs that are available.
My treatment consisted of three months chemotherapy, followed by six weeks of daily radiation, and another three months of chemo. During the radiotherapy, I returned to my part-time job in a church office which, fortunately, was close to the hospital where I had my treatment. The hospital was also close to home, so I was able to go there each day without difficulty. The only adverse effect of the radiation that I experienced, was again tiredness, and some skin irritation which was helped by a cream.
My mother went to treatment with me at first, but after the first couple of chemo sessions, I found that I was happy to go on my own, and was able to drive myself home (only about 7 minutes away). I didn’t especially want my husband to go with me, because it seemed to reinforce the fact that I had breast cancer, and I’m not sure that he would have coped all that well. He was very supportive in other ways, but I felt that I had to remain strong for him and everyone else.
I felt blessed that I did not lose my hair completely (vanity I know!). However, it certainly thinned, and from time to time, the bathroom floor would be covered in a layer of hair. I was reminded of how fortunate I was, when I attended a “Look Good… Feel Better” session, where some of the women were really transformed by a wig and some makeup. Thank you to the wonderful women who put this program together.
I think it is really important to have a goal or something to focus on at the end of treatment. The Sydney Olympics was mine. I couldn’t wait for the Olympics to start, to become immersed in the competition, and know that my treatment would be finished a few weeks later.
It is now almost seven years since my last chemo session. I’ve had numerous blood tests, doctors’ visits, mammograms and ultrasounds. I took Tamoxifen for five years, and I’m now taking an aromatase inhibitor called Femara. I might take this for a few years, or a lot of years, depending on research that is still being done.
I am cancer free! I asked my oncologist if there is such a thing as being cured of cancer. He doesn’t think that one can say they are “cured”, but obviously, the longer one goes without a recurrence the better. I would like to think that I am cured, but there is always the thought, albeit at the back of my mind, when unexpected aches and pains occur, “I wonder?”
I feel blessed that I am here to tell my story. I feel extremely blessed that I had caring, and competent doctors. I also had a wonderful support network in my family and friends. I was strengthened and uplifted in prayer by two church families – the church I worked in and the church I attended.
I cannot praise God enough that I was so fortunate. I was close to home and my family. I was close to the hospital and treatment. I was close to the support group that kept me strong for months afterwards. I had people who cooked a meal once a week and my mother vacuumed and cleaned when I couldn’t.
Not everyone is so fortunate, and I have come to realise the plight of women in country areas, who are separated from their families and how difficult it must be for them and their families at such a traumatic time. This is why I would like to support the McGrath Foundation who are raising funds for breast care nurses to go into country areas. However, any fundraising is important for research into this disease, so please give generously – there are still too many women dying of breast cancer. Please remember that early detection is vital! If you have a lump don’t delay and don’t be afraid! Go to your doctor immediately, your life can be saved.
I could write so much more, but it would be far too much to wade through! Perhaps I’ve written too much already, but if it helps anyone in any way, then I am thankful.
p.s. I had my first mammogram ten months prior to my diagnosis, and it was clear. It is important to check your breasts regularly and not just rely on a mammogram every two years (as important as they are).