This time last year I was introduced to Breast Cancer Network Australia (BCNA) and worked with them on the Field of Women. My role in sponsorship at NAB had meant that we were able to support the activity at the MCG through our AFL partnership.
I stood on the MCG in my pink poncho, looking around at breast cancer survivors and those that had lost loved ones and felt like a bit of an imposter. I didn’t know anyone with breast cancer, or have any real idea about what a diagnosis would mean.
A month later I would be diagnosed with breast cancer that had spread to my lymph nodes, resulting in a treatment plan of a mastectomy and lymph node clearance on my left side, followed by 6 rounds of chemo and 15 sessions of radiation therapy.
Once I was diagnosed things moved quickly, it was a whirlwind. My boyfriend and I went from appointment to appointment taking notes and trying to make sense of what was about to happen. I’m incredibly lucky to have had his support as well as an incredible circle of friends and family and a cracking team of specialists.
A week after my diagnosis I had my operation, and it wasn’t until we received the pathology report that we really understood what had been growing inside my body – in total I had three tumours in my breast and one cancerous lymph node.
At 32, with no children the next concern was preserving my eggs to give me options should the chemotherapy affect my fertility. I found this to be really challenging, I hadn’t thought about having kids and the daily injections seemed to be insignificant given the looming deadline of chemo. Looking back now, I’m grateful that I have the option to use the 8 eggs they managed to freeze.
As soon as I could I started exercising again, slowly but surely working with my trainer and physio to build up all the strength that I had lost since the operation. I was keen to be as strong as I could be before starting chemo. Thankfully my scars healed well and my fitness improved quickly, for me exercise was critical to my physical and mental recovery.
After 3 weeks of recovery I went back to work, and was grateful to be able to. I’m not very good at sitting still and felt like I needed to try and keep my life as normal as possible before I embarked on the next phase of my treatment plan. I made the decision to work through my treatment, because I needed to be something other than a cancer patient. I wanted to continue to be myself as much as I could.
I was very open about my diagnosis and upcoming treatment, inviting close friends to come to chemo with me to see what it was like. For me it was important to share what was happening to me as it affected those around me just as much as it had affected me.
But ultimately, I had no idea what to expect, I’d read the long list of side effects and tried to imagine experiencing each of them.
My first round of chemo was not what I expected, it was incredibly difficult.
That morning I had a port put into my right arm that would serve as the entry point for chemo over the next four and a half months. I was then taken to the Oncology day ward where I put a cooling cap on to cool down my scalp and slow the blood flow around my hair follicles to protect them and hopefully keep them from falling out.
After an hour of scalp cooling the drugs were administered and the cap remained on throughout the treatment and then for an hour afterwards.
By the end of the treatment I was exhausted, nauseous and emotional.
I was very lucky that my symptoms weren’t as bad as those I’d studied on the sheet but the toll the drugs took on my body and state of mind really took me by surprise.
I had underestimated the impact of a loss of taste and appetite. I was desperate to bounce back to normal as I had after my operation, but had to learn to slow down and take my time to recover from the cocktail of drugs in my system.
After a week or so I started to feel like I was getting back to ‘normal’ and decided to get a group together for the 2018 Carman’s Women’s Fun Run to help fundraise for BCNA. I was really overwhelmed by the support and donations I received. I was so glad I could help contribute to an organisation that had supported me through my diagnosis and treatment.
On the day of the run my scalp felt sore and I knew what was to come – as I got ready I recall making the decision not to put my hair up as I was worried it would fall out.
The next day a clump of hair was on my pillow and it continued to fall out, at work, in the shower – everywhere.
I was determined to persevere with the cooling cap, at least for one more session but it just didn’t work for me. I shaved my head a week before Christmas and it was the most freeing feeling. In a situation where I’d lost a lot control over my life I finally got to make a choice that I had full control over. Thankfully the shaved head suited me!
I started to enjoy the freedom of a new hair cut (and the time I saved in the mornings!). My hair, eyelashes and eyebrows continued to fall out and I forged a new sense of confidence that came with this new identity, I felt proud of what I’d been through and decided not to wear a wig to hide the signs of what I’d been through.
After 6 sessions, I finished chemo on the 27th February and was relieved but hesitant about what was to come with radiation. I’d once again consulted the long list of possible side effects and was anxious and nervous about what came next.
I had radiation therapy every day for three weeks and was extremely lucky to have experienced little to no side effects, which again I credit to maintaining a strong routine of exercise and eating well.
On Monday the 8th April 2019 I had my last session, I walked into the waiting room to see my boyfriend holding a bottle of champagne standing by the remission ‘victory bell’.
I rung that bell with glass in hand confident that I wouldn’t need to ring it again.
12 months on from my diagnosis, I feel better than ever. My hair is growing back, life is getting back to normal and I’m immensely proud of what my body has done and can do.
I’m planning to have a preventative mastectomy on my other breast in the next couple of months.
This year when I do the Carman’s Women’s Fun Run I’ll be post op once again, surrounded by a group of family and friends and stronger than ever.