How did I feel when I was first diagnosed?
I was 33, breast feeding a nine-month-old daughter, with another daughter aged five having just started school. I had only found out two weeks prior to my diagnoses that I was a BRAC1 carrier. I think being told that I had this gene was probably more frightening then being told I had cancer. I knew that by having this gene I would have to make a decision about whether I had my breasts removed and my ovaries removed. Being told to do this when you are not ready was something I didn’t like. So being told I had breast cancer meant it was a decision I didn’t have to make – I knew I had to have my breasts removed.
What really helped me get through breast cancer?
Firstly, the support of my husband (partner at the time) and my closest friends as well as seeing my girls smile each day. Then, it was the surprise of falling pregnant during my chemo and deciding to continue with the birth of our third daughter. My husband Dean proposed to me on Christmas Day, which also gave me something to look forward to after I had finished treatment and all my operations!
After six months of breast feeding my third daughter I had my other breast removed. My daughter was six weeks old when I had my full hysterectomy. This was a difficult time as it was a decision that I knew meant I wouldn’t be able to have any more children. Whether we were planning to have one or not wasn’t the point – not having the choice anymore made it really difficult.
In other aspects, being linked to Breast Cancer Network Australia and being able to travel to summits and forums all over Australia and meet some very amazing women has helped. Meeting Lyn Swinburne, BCNA’s former CEO, has been one of my biggest highlights as she has guided me through my cancer journey and has given me so many wonderful opportunities to promote her brilliant organisation.
What did I learn through breast cancer?
That there is nothing more important than having your family, as this is something I was scared of losing. During my journey I learned that no matter what you may come across in your life, fighting cancer is one of the toughest challenges. Having gone through it I now know I can handle any challenge life throws at me. Being a survivor is the best way to make a positive out of a negative and raise awareness among women young and old. There are too many stories written and in the media about young women losing their lives to cancer, they need focus on more of the positive stories to give other families hope.
What did I lose through breast cancer? And what did I gain?
Besides losing all my hair… I never really lost anything. I believe I gained a better understanding of the cancer world. Having lost my mother to breast cancer when I was 13, seeing my sister diagnosed at 37 and losing my dad at 67 to bowel cancer, I found that I was able to relate to more things that were going on in MY cancer world.
I also gained a lot of strength and I was able to share my story with the local media and many other organisations in Australia. To publicly speak about my journey is something I know I can say has given me strength. And hoping that I have done my parents proud by raising awareness as helped me remarkably.
What did I do to get mysef ‘back’ from cancer and cancer treatments?
I discovered there were no young women’s support groups in Ballarat (where I live) at the time of my diagnoses. So in 2004 I launched Breast Cancer in City/Country (BICC), which is still going strong. We meet every month for an informal dinner.
After losing my dad to bowel cancer I felt there was a need to support everyone travelling the cancer journey. In 2009, I launched SUPPORT4CANCER, a drop-in centre where people just come in and chat with me. I feel it is very important speaking to someone who understands what it is to survive cancer. The centre is sponsored by local companies and we hold many corporate events throughout the year to raise money and awareness.
The centre has grown remarkably quick and we are now taking phone calls from people across Australia. We either link the patients with someone going through a similar experience or to connect them with organisations that they may find helpful. We are planning on having our own S4C car on the road in the next few months and we will be making home visits and also visiting people in regional areas to reduce their feelings of isolation.
How is my life different now?
My life is so much different to what it was six years ago. I’ve built up a support group and drop-in centre I am proud of and that are recognised on the cover of this year’s Ballarat White Pages and Yellow Pages. That is very humbling and surprising.
Mostly, my passion in life has changed. I was a hairdresser for 20 years, but it is no longer my passion. Making a difference to people traveling the cancer journey is my passion now. Whether its speaking one-on-one to people, or to many at forums, I realise my cancer diagnoses was meant to happen to me, as it makes me happy to help women get the support they need.
People do ask me have I ever asked myself ‘Why Me?’ To be honest, I never have as I think it happened for a reason. And the reason is to make my three daughters’ lives a lot easier if they are ever thrown this challenge. The only thing I fear is my little girls having to go through the heart ache I have had to go through.
What would I say to someone going through breast cancer now?
I would like to think that everyone is as positive as me, but I know this is not the case. Try to think of the outcome and to how much stronger you will be. Try to turn the negative into a positive. There is an end to the dark tunnel. I could have fallen into a dark hole many times – not only with my own diagnoses but after losing my parents – but I chose not to. I knew it was too deep and that if I went in I would never come out. So I always stayed positive, not only to myself, but also to the ones around me.
At the end of the day, they were my breasts and ovaries that I lost, but it could have been worse. Some people lose legs, arms. No one can see my scars. I am reminded of them every day when I look in the mirror, but at the same time, I get to look into that mirror every day and see myself and my precious family.