I was never one to examine my breasts but for some reason in early May 2001, I felt an inner nudge. Under the shower that morning I tried the best I could and to my horror I discovered a small lump about the size of a pea. I tried to ignore it for a few days and then repeated the process. Same thing. Now what do I do? My husband is a real panic merchant so not wanting to worry him I made an appointment for a pap smear which I knew was overdue and told him that’s why I was going to the doctor.
The Doctor was concerned enough to send me for an urgent mammogram and a possible ultrasound if the clinic thought it was necessary. I ended up having both tests which confirmed there were two lumps so I thought I should tell hubby who went deathly white and asked when he should start to panic. I told him I wasn’t panicking so he didn’t need to and off I went for a biopsy which was quite painful.
I was to wait until the following week to get the results but I got an early call to say the doctor wanted to see me straight away which was a bit unnerving. When I went into his room he sat me down and said to me “I don’t really know what to say” and he just turned the computer screen around so that I could see the diagnosis of Cancer. He then asked me how I felt. How do you answer that one?
Before I left his rooms he had already made an appointment for me to see a Breast Surgeon within a few days and on that day hubby came with me. We had grown children but hadn’t told them yet because I wanted to get all the facts straight before we said anything which we did the night before I went into hospital. They didn’t appear to be worried in the least.
The visit to the specialist was easy enough as he told me that I was only in the early stages and with only one of the two lumps showing cancer I would probably only need to have a lumpectomy – maybe some radiotherapy – but maybe no treatment at all. He wanted me in hospital the following week.
The big day arrived. I had the lumpectomy and then just sat in hospital and waited. I had a drainage tube in my breast which had to be checked daily and I had sufficient visitors so I was okay. I stayed until the Saturday and we just waited and waited until the surgeon finally arrived at lunch time. He was watching his son play sport and I was told he had to give me the pathology report before I went home.
He walked through the door, sat down opposite me, looked me in the eye and said “when I did the operation I found three lumps and all of them had cancer. Plus there were a whole lot of pre-cancer cells and I’m not sure I got clear enough margins; so you will have to go straight into three months of Chemotherapy and then have a mastectomy.” Talk about being hit in the face by a bucket of water. I started to cry and then for some reason I apologised, and he then told me he would arrange for me to see the Oncologist he worked with as soon as possible.
The drive home that day was pretty horrible with all these questions and thoughts going through our heads but strangely enough never at any time did I think about dying. That just wasn’t on my agenda.
We found it interesting to phone our kids and a couple of friends when we got home and to hear their reactions. Daughter no.1 was overseas and asked if she should come home to which I answered “No.” Son no.1 said “Don’t worry Mum – you’ll be fine.” And youngest daughter didn’t really know what to say. A few friends also said “Don’t worry – everything will be fine.” Alright for them I thought, you don’t have to have the Chemo.
I think the only way to describe all this is that I felt like a robot just going through the motions of daily life. Everything was so surreal and you just function as though you are on auto. However, you find it’s times like this when you find an inner strength and also come to realise who your true friends are.
Many people can’t cope because they just don’t know what to say so they stay away. Those who really care about you are wonderful even though they don’t know what to say either. I had many offers to take me to each chemotherapy treatment and we were truly grateful to those who dropped off casseroles for us, especially as there was no way I felt like cooking.
Because of all the preparation needed, it was two weeks before the treatment started. I guess I was one of the lucky ones as I didn’t suffer all the vomiting that many people do but I felt like I was in a constant state of Morning Sickness. The first dose of chemo I had was too strong for my body and I ended up with a mouth and throat full of ulcers which were very painful. The Oncologist had to reduce the strength for me and I was so thankful that this didn’t mean I had to endure extra doses.
Each person has to have their own special dose of chemo to match their body height and weight etc and there are also a number of different varieties of Chemo. I was given the right dose for my body but for some reason my body couldn’t cope with that. Within 4-6 weeks, I had completely lost my hair and during all this treatment my weight plummeted to 55kg so I was pretty skinny. I had always wanted to lose weight but certainly not that way.
Before each treatment I had to have a blood test and one time, the treatment was postponed for a week because my blood count was too low. That was really hard because you have to psyche yourself up to be ready for it and that meant I had to go through all that again for another week. With the treatment every 3 weeks, I always found I felt terrible for the first week, the 2nd week was sort of okay and by the 3rd week I was feeling a little better but then had to face it all over again.
After the three months’ treatment, the Breast Surgeon then decided to give me a choice between the mastectomy and radiotherapy. That made me quite frustrated because he had always said I would have to have the Mastectomy but his only answer was that he needed to give me a choice. That was a choice I didn’t want. I just wanted to be told what I needed but he wasn’t going to do that.
I was in absolute turmoil for about a week until just sitting out in the sun one day I suddenly knew I had to go through with the mastectomy. When I told the surgeon he was delighted and said that was the answer he wanted. Why he didn’t just tell me I’ll never know.
As he suggested that I have a reconstruction at the same time, I then had to have appointments with the Plastic Surgeon who was to do this part of the operation. But I then had to wait until both surgeons could do the operation on the same day. It wasn’t until November that this could happen so back into hospital again, this time for 8 days for the double operation which lasted for about 7 hours.
During one visit the Breast Surgeon gave me the Pathology report which was all clear. He said “Now you’re going to ask me why I made you go through all that” and I said “No, I am sure I made the right decision”. He then told me that was pleasing to hear because if I hadn’t chosen that route, he felt sure we would have been walking the same path in another two years’ time. Nice thought I don’t think, but why he couldn’t have saved me all the stress I don’t know.
By this time my hair was starting to grow again and it was like peach fuzz all over my head. One person made the comment that most ladies would pay a fortune for a hair do like mine to which I replied “I did”.
The final stage
I decided it was time to get on with life again and went back to doing the things I enjoyed. In August 2002 I had to go back into hospital again, this time for just 2 nights so the Plastic Surgeon could finish off the reconstruction by creating a new nipple for me.
After all that, my follow-up continued for a number of years as I was seen by both the Breast Surgeon and the Oncologist each year. After about 6 years the Breast Surgeon left me in the hands of the Oncologist. My final appointment with him was 2011, 10 years since my diagnosis. I still need to have a mammogram every 12 months but my local GP can organise that for me. It’s a great feeling and even though it’s not guaranteed that l will be cancer free for good, as each year goes by I know the odds get better and better.
Getting myself back
I am a very positive person and I tried to stay focussed all through. I love craft work and bought myself a project to work on during my treatment which helped a great deal when I wasn’t feeling well. Then, when that was finished and all treatments were completed I just said to myself “well, you’re through to the other side, now it’s time to get back into life.”
I did make a bit of a mistake in doing this because when I just threw myself back into life I forgot to listen to my body. By the end of that first year I was so exhausted and so tired that I needed to realise my body had not yet healed properly. Because I don’t like just sitting down, I had to learn to give myself permission to take a break and allow myself to completely heal. Good therapy. I was also very fortunate to be able to look forward to the arrival of 2 new grandchildren that following year so I had many positives to focus on.
Cancer Connect Program
At the time I was agonising over my need for a mastectomy or radiotherapy, I phoned theCancer Council as I felt I needed to talk to someone. They have qualified nurses who answer their help line and during the course of our conversation the nurse asked if I would like to speak with someone through their Cancer Connect program who had been through the exact thing I was going through.
The encouragement I received through that call made me determined to become involved in that program as soon as I was able and in June 2003 I applied and was accepted. Once all my treatment and operations were over I needed to wait 18 months to two years before I could become involved, because even though I felt really well, they told me it can take up to two years to completely heal your emotions.
After participating in a 3 day training course I was then able to be added to their list and since then I have spoken to about 56 ladies – ladies whose diagnosis and/or treatment is the same as me. I am so committed to this program because for those who have been diagnosed with any type of cancer there is nothing like being able to speak to someone who has actually been through that situation.
What would I say to someone going through breast cancer now?
- Take one day at a time.
- Listen to your body and rest when you need to.
- Ask your doctors for answers to things you’re not sure about and if they don’t answer, keep asking.
- Take someone with you to appointments to be another ear to listen to what you are being told.
- Call the Help line at the Cancer Council (13 11 20) and speak to a nurse on the other end of the phone. The Cancer Society New Zealand also provides a telephone support and Cancer Information Helpline 0800 CANCER (226 237) staffed by nurses.
- Above all, try to keep smiling even when you feel lousy. Cancer can be fought and a positive attitude certainly helps in the healing process