My final chemotherapy treatment in November 2005 was a breeze. The brew of chemicals slowly flowed into my body as it had done for the previous 15 treatments. As the last ounce disappeared from the bag, I sighed with relief. The nurse gave me a hug and exclaimed, “It’s over!” I left the treatment room with the biggest smile on my face. But I knew the journey was still only just beginning – the reality is I am a ‘Cancer Patient.’
On 20 April 2005, at age 32, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I had felt a lump on my breast which I had ignored for a couple of months hoping it would go away, convincing myself young, healthy women don’t get breast cancer. I was in denial and afraid of the unknown.
I eventually consulted my GP who told me not to worry and that it felt like a cyst. She recommended I go in for an ultrasound. I thought I’d be in and out and back to work in no time, however my worst fear was realized. I spent the morning going through the process of ultrasound, mammogram, fine needle biopsy and finally, the diagnosis – all within three hours. Seemingly, in an instant, my life had changed.
As the song by Green Day goes: “Another turning point, a fork stuck in the road.”
The following months were a nightmare emotionally, physically and mentally, and it had a huge impact on those closest to me.
I didn’t realise the body could produce so many tears. I don’t know what I would have done without my family by my side every step of the way. They kept me focused, positive and strong when I was ready to crumble. Most importantly, they let me know I was loved and not alone.
Being Gemini, and indecisive at the best of times, I felt the pressure of making such major decisions. Whether to have a mastectomy or not, breast reconstruction options and fertility issues. I went into a whirlwind of gathering information via the Internet, books, talking to women who had been there and visiting the plastic surgeon. I finally decided that I should have the mastectomy to ensure the best possible outcome.
It was at this time that I first came across the Cancer Care Centre. I was getting a prosthetic breast fitted at a Burnside lingerie shop when the assistant told me about the Centre. I went there that very day and was so impressed with what I saw, that I joined up then and there. I found the female volunteer welcoming and compassionate as she went through the range of services on offer. I booked in to see a counsellor the next week.
My father told me when I was a kid that, through life, the friends you have now will not necessarily be with you when you grow older. He was wrong. When I got ill, he celebrated the fact that he could sell tickets to visit me as all my friends from throughout my life were there for me. (He complains that he never made a buck!)
Another issue I had to consider was the fact that I would possibly go through an early menopause as a result of chemotherapy. This news devastated me as I always imagined having another child. I felt angry and frustrated that this possibility might be taken from me. After much consultation with friends and family, I decided to leave my fertility in the hands of nature, God, Lady Luck, The Universe…
I then focused on the fact that I was lucky enough to have one beautiful child already. Conor, my son, was five at the time. He was sensitive and caring throughout my treatment, and even managed to make me laugh at times. I was distraught when my hair began to fall out, and he reminded me gently how much money I’d save on visiting the hairdresser!
During the months of cancer treatments, I experienced complete hair loss, fatigue, nausea and a roller coaster of emotion: fear, lack of confidence, anxiety, calm, depression and elation.
Then once the chemotherapy was over, there was more therapy to come. I went through radiotherapy every day for five weeks as well as Herceptin infusions for the next year.
When my radiotherapy finished, I wanted my bout with cancer to be over and to get back to a ‘normal’ life! My hair started to grow back and I slowly regained some of my energy and started to feel good. I went back to work as a social worker and not long afterwards, discovered the miraculous news that I had fallen pregnant. I gave birth to a healthy baby boy, Declan, who is about to turn three. I believe that combining conventional medicine with complementary treatment assisted on my path to recovery and helped me to fall pregnant with Declan.
Cancer taught me about myself, my faith, spirituality, family, priorities, the richness of friendships and the fragility of life.
Part of my journey has been the discovery that I am different after cancer treatment, both physically and emotionally. My expectations and old patterns have had to change. I have to learn to cope with the anxiety and fear of maintaining my well-being, health and mind.
The reality is cancer can come back. So I have had to find healthy ways of coping with the fear of its recurrence. As with the treatment part of my cancer journey, I have used my friends, family, alternative medicine therapies, the Cancer Care Centre and my professional career to work through these issues. I have tried to focus on what I have gained from my experience. Pivotal to all of this has been my association with the Cancer Care Centre.
From that first day five years ago, I have continued to use the services offered at the Centre – meditation classes, attending talks by guest speakers, having ongoing lymphatic drainage massage and using the resource library extensively. In the first year after diagnosis, I think I read every book in the library!
I was only able to utilise these services because they were provided at such an affordable price. The Breast Care Nurse, Karen was a fantastic support and provided me with a wealth of information and advice on everything from prosthetics and wigs to support networks, and she was able to speak in layman’s terms to explain treatments and what to expect.
When I heard the Centre was going through financial difficulty last year at the AGM, I decided I would nominate for the Board. I am passionate about keeping the Centre going, as the thought of it not being there to help other people as it did me is unthinkable!
Coping with cancer will continue to be an on-going, ever-changing process. Cancer taught me about myself, my faith, spirituality, family, priorities, the richness of friendships and the fragility of life.
I loved my life before I got cancer but I didn’t appreciate it like I do now. There is even a certain sparkle in life’s most mundane things. I know it’s impossible to go back to life before cancer, so I aim to make my new life and my ‘new me’ better than ever.
It is my hope for all people young and old to stay informed on matters of health and remain pro-active in maintaining their health and well-being.
I am using my cancer experience as a catalyst to personal, emotional and spiritual growth. As another breast cancer survivor once told me, “Cancer is not a death sentence – just a word.” There is life after cancer, and I intend to make it a good one! It is reassuring to know that the Cancer Care Centre will be there to help me and others along.