Posted Feb, 2012 (mostly written for my first breast cancer speech to help raise awareness and funds for the NBCF Australia)
Thankfully I was born in 1971. And whilst I hate admitting my old age (I’m sure you are thoroughly shocked I’m 40, I’m still getting over it myself!). The thing is, if I’d been born 10 years earlier, I may not be standing here at all. I stand here today healthy, due to a new breast cancer drug research recently uncovered called herceptin. Without it, my odds of survival would have been slim.
Breast cancer has changed me, the biggest lesson I have learned, is that you don’t know what life’s going to throw at you, so you need to live in the present and make the most of every day.
Wind back 18 months ago, and I didn’t quite see it like this. At age 39 I rather thought that I was one of the lucky ones. You see nothing heart wrenching had ever happened to me – no tragedy, not even a divorce in the family. I had lived a blissfully uneventful life, things like breast cancer happened to other people not me.
Despite this, I did check my breasts regularly. Primarily because my mum also had a brush with breast cancer about 5 years ago. She was 60 and it was a tiny lump found early, no chemo needed. Still I did learn the importance of checking, particularly given heredity factors.
I was at home, with my beautiful nieces tucked up in my bed and had just gotten horizontal on the lounge, settling in to watch a movie (and simultaneously play on my iPad, tweet from my phone etc!). I clearly remember as a lied back I kind of unconsciously did a lump check – and not finding any, but I did notice that it felt like the tissue in my right breast was chunkier. I thought to myself, I’m sure it’s nothing, but next time I visit the GP I better get it checked. I didn’t mention it to anyone though, as I really wasn’t concerned.
It could have been months. I mean, I was in the best condition of my life, having recently joined a running squad and ran my first half marathon. But luckily (on reflection) I got a really bad flu soon after that which turned into a nasty chest infection. So the visit to the GP happened just a few weeks later. I headed off and she only had time to examine me flu wise, but got me to go and get some XRays and we booked an appointment for the next day for her to review the XRays and do the breast exam.
That night I was lying in bed with my new boyfriend chatting and I mentioned to him that while I was at the docs the next day I was going to get my breasts checked. He was concerned (actually the words were, dude don’t go getting sick on me now) but I brushed it off saying I’m sure it was nothing, I was really going to get my chest X-Rays looked at due to my infection.
So the good news is, the X-Rays were clear, my Doctor wasn’t concerned! The bad news is, that changed the second she felt my breast. Her expression was grave, the look on her face scared me….and then she said she could feel a 9cm lump. Seems I’d been looking for a pea, when I had a tennis ball. With sweaty palms and a racing heart, I asked if she thought it was breast cancer. She said she always assumes it is until proven otherwise.
Her concern was so grave that when I asked if I’d still be able to go on my Bali holiday 2 days later, she hopped straight on the phone to her preferred surgical oncologist and got me an appointment immediately. As in, you need to leave here now and drive straight there.
I walked out the front and did what most women would do in my position. I called mum. I told her exactly what had just happened and asked her to come with me. I drove the 5 minute journey to my parents house, in a state of shock. I stood on the front doorstep knocked on the door to my family home and my dad answered it. The second I saw his face, the reality of the situation hit me and I burst into tears, and said the obvious words “I’m scared”.
The rest of the day was spent going from room to room, machine to machine, test to test. Mum and I both knew from the expressions we were seeing the news wasn’t going to be good. Then while sitting on the blue plastic chairs, in the Doctors waiting room I heard my phone beep. It was a text from the boyfriend, with a question. It said ‘how were your chest x-rays beautiful, did they find anything in there apart from your big heart’? I felt like I’d been kicked in the stomach, then showed mum and shed a few more tears.
Soon afterwards, we were back with the surgeon and I heard the words, I’d been dreading all day. Those four horrible words, I hope no-one else here ever has to hear. You have breast cancer.
But the news wasn’t all bad, in fact, the surgeon explained I had a type of breast cancer called DCIS, that typically doesn’t spread – like in 90% of cases. I would need a mastectomy (and I said it wasn’t all bad?!), as a precaution, BUT apart from tablets for 5 years, no further treatment. I asked about my other breast, and he explained it was a cancer that often spreads to the other breast. At which point, without any hesitation whatsoever I said, OK, you can take both of the f*ckers off as long as you promise to give me a nice perky new set!
I felt strangely lucky, like I’d dodged a bullet once I heard my prognosis, and quickly formed a script in an attempt to de-catastrophise my news to all that love me. It went, I’ve got breast cancer, but don’t worry, it’s a kind that doesn’t spread – I do need a mastectomy, but I’m going to end up with better boobs and be back to normal life in a matter of weeks. I said those words so many times, and with such optimism that I actually felt fairly upbeat.
Off I went to Bali, where I sunbathed topless for what I felt would be probably be the last time. My operation was booked for 2 days after my return. Strangely I managed to have a lovely time. A lot less boozey that my usual holiday behavior but still great!
The operation went to plan. The node dip test was the most important part (as that ascertains if there has been a spread). The second I came through the grogginess of the anesthetic, my first question was “what were the test results”?! When I heard they were clear I screamed out loud – hallelujah! I was warned not to get too excited, 1. My blood pressure was high and 2. we needed the pathology report to come back to be 100% certain but my odds of anything more serious had just decreased to only 5%.
Five days later, I was at home, weak but recovering well, waiting for the call to confirm my clear pathology results. The phone rang and knowing how patchy the reception is in my house I headed out to the porch to answer. The Doctors first words were, Yvette I’m afraid I’ve got bad news for you – I looked up to see my sister, brother in law and their 3 kids (loves of my life), and with shock and fear on my face did some sign language to express what was going on and that they needed to keep driving. I didn’t want the kids to be around for this news.
Welcome to my worst case scenario, my cancer had indeed spread, and they had found 2mm of invasive cancer in my breast and a further 2mm in my node. I was in the 5%. The kids were dropped off and the adults in my family descended on me rapidly to support me. I finally shed the tears I’d been holding in for the past 4 weeks. Metastatic, HER 2positive breast cancer. Not ideal!
So, off to chemo then. I rapidly digested the news, strapping on my armored suit. I repeated to myself, family and friends things like I can do this, I can do anything. Why not me? I’ve been so lucky until now in life. I watched a show where Chrissie Hynde was interviewed about her breast cancer and she said you can take this news and respond as victim or warrior. She was right, and I was a warrior.
I walked into the Oncology ward for my first chemo session and I have to say, the room reminded me of a nail bar. 8 or 9 leather reclining seats. Shame about the needles instead of polish I thought! I watched a movie to help the time pass on my iPad. That was a one off though, over the months, chemo became a much more social occasion as I met and bonded with the other patients.
10 days after my first chemo session, right on cue my hair started falling out. I made the same joke as probably every chemo patient and told people I was so stressed I was tearing my hair out! Rather than watch the hair demise, two of my best friends offered to do the honors and get the clippers out. It was a beautiful Friday night in November, the job was done on a balcony over looking Tamarama beach. We had some fun with it, a temporary Mohawk along the way. I even had a few wines to numb the pain…and then I was bald.
Talk about confronting. I mean does any female look good bald? The worst of it is, once the hair goes, there’s no escaping the cancer patient look. When all you really want is to go under the radar, you can’t. Yes wigs can help, but I hated wearing them, both hot and itchy!
In typical warrior fashion a week later, at our work Christmas party, I used my new look to my advantage dressing as Sinead O’Connor for our rock star themed Christmas party. What seemed like a good idea in theory, was to be honest hard in practice. But despite the fact I didn’t like what I saw in the mirror, for the sake of the sisterhood – and my own stubbornness, I did it.
Actually, that wasn’t the only time I went bald. Another time that had an impact me was a few weeks later at our extended family Christmas BBQ. I was feeling really sick by this stage, having had my 2nd round of chemo 2 days prior. The nausea and the exhaustion were tough. But my mum begged me to come for a couple of hours and I don’t know how to say no to her to be honest.
Anyway, I arrived and walked around to the back of the house where about 30 of my family members were feasting around the BBQ and pool. I was wearing a scarf on my head at the time, but immediately noticed that my auntie was sitting there, totally bald and nonplussed. You see she was also undergoing chemotherapy. I chose that moment to rip the scarf off amid claps and the unconditional love of my family. Unfortunately we lost my auntie midway through last year.
Chemo was hard but I generally kept the armor firmly in place. Yes there were moments when it all got too much and I let my guard down. But not many. My mum did bear the brunt of it I’m afraid when I had my one and only meltdown. I broke up with the boyfriend, just as I had my 3rd round of chemo. I asked her to stay at my house, I needed taking care of between that and the chemo. The meltdown happened early one morning while she sipped a cup of tea in bed in my guest room. I sat at the bottom of the bed and sobbed and it all came out. Why me, it’s not fair blah blah blah.
Then I kept going, one foot in front of the other. I moved into a different stage of chemo and it got easier. I was able to work four days a week and spent less time thinking about cancer and it was a welcome relief! I must say work were incredibly supportive and made it easy for me to balance my treatment and work life and I can’t thank them enough.
The week before chemo finished I got a rather big shock. I was at the hospital at the time, in the waiting room about to get a heart scan. One of the drugs I’ve been on can weaken the heart so this was a rather regular occurrence. I was sitting there playing on my blackberry…as you do…on facebook no less, when I opened up a group message from my 34 year old friend living in New York. The first line said it all. I’m not sure there’s an easy way in to it, so I’m going to be blunt. I’ve been diagnosed with breast cancer. Invasive ductal carcinoma to be exact. I couldn’t believe it…and neither could our mutual friends. How could this dastardly disease strike again so soon and so close?! I felt down-right angry to be honest. Nicole now claims that she may never have gone to have that suspected lump checked if it hadn’t been for increased awareness due to me. So, it’s some comfort to know that at least my experience helped save her life.
Then before I knew it, 5 months were over and I was done with chemotherapy, a week before my 40th birthday. I didn’t have a big party because I didn’t fancy being the center of attention still bald and quite frankly a bit on the heavy side (another unwelcome side effect of chemo!). I did have a lovely lunch though and then mum and I took off for a week of rest in Bali. Bali again!
And then the blues hit. I didn’t need the armor anymore. The fight was over and I’d won. But I suddenly was much more acutely aware that I’d lost. One night a month later, I woke from a deep sleep and stumbled towards the bathroom and I thought to myself. Oh my F’ing god. I had breast cancer. Me. I really had cancer. It was like it only just occurred to me. I spoke to the Doctor and he reassured me that what I was going through was normal. He explained that in time my emotional wounds would heal and in the meantime that the best remedy from his experience was exercise.
I went back to running squad the next week. I was unfit, but found my mood immediately lifted. And I haven’t stopped since. In fact I’ve done 4 triathlons in the past 6 months.
Yes breast cancer has changed me. But I think I have changed for the better. I feel things more acutely now. There are more tears but in a good way – I have more empathy. My bonds with my friends and family have deepened. And I’ve resolved to live my life right here and now in the present. To the full. I don’t worry about what might happen – anything can happen and it sometimes does. We only have today. That’s all we really ever have.
All of which has led me to making some rather large decisions in my life. The biggest of which is to move to the other side of the globe and have a whole lot of adventure. In April 2012, I am moving from Sydney Australia to Manhattan, New York. I have been blogging throughout my journey and there were some really defining moments that led to so much change. There was some confrontation regarding my career after chemo on the work front, the ‘what happens next‘ that follows chemo, writing my bucket list and of course the decision to move my cheese. Then there was the day I made the big decision to move to NY. I have continued to write about my pink ribbon journey and also started a blog about my move to NYC. I figure in time, I’m going the have a lot more to say about the later rather than the former 🙂