By SHAE SPRY
As soon as the specialist took my hand I knew what she was going to tell me. “I’m so sorry,” she said. “It is cancer.” It was surreal. Breast cancer was not a possibility I had entertained. I bowed my head and wailed for a few minutes, all the while thinking “But I’m only 24, I’m not finished yet. I’m not finished yet.”
I couldn’t think of any question to ask apart from “I’ll survive?”
“We don’t know yet,” the specialist replied. “We need to do more tests.”
I insisted on having those tests done immediately. I was having more biopsies, mammograms and ultrasounds, within half an hour. I felt that I needed more information if I was to deal with this new reality. I recall chatting to the people administering the tests – about their kids, about my recent trip overseas for uni – as if everything was normal, only I still had tears wetting my flattering hospital gown. I was in shock and on auto-pilot.
The next day brought relief: I had caught my cancer early, so it was not likely to take my life. However, there was no time to waste! My cancer was classified as small, but it had a medium growth rate.
The following week, I had surgery for the first time. I had a lumpectomy which removed my cancer and a margin of safety around it. I also had three lymph nodes removed from my underarm to test whether cancer was spreading via the lymphatic system. Just before surgery, to identify the lymph nodes to be targeted, I had a blue radioactive dye injected into my nipple (ouch!). I watched the screen with the silhouette of my body on it, and as the dye travelled through my system, the lymph nodes lit up like stars in the night sky.
The amazing thing was that the lymph nodes I had removed were tested for the presence of cancer WHILE I was still under general aesthetic. The results were available within half an hour. This knowledge is vital for surgeons in deciding their next steps – if cancer is present, the lymph nodes can be removed immediately, thus reducing the number of times a patient requires surgery.
The great news was that I didn’t have cancer in my lymph nodes. The bad news was that the cancer was closer to the outer edge of the margin of safety than was ideal, resulting in more surgery three weeks later. The interesting news was that the blue dye made my nipple turn bright blue, and it stayed that way for about six months. I joked that it wasn’t all bad – 2010 was the year of Avatar so my right breast was now at the height of fashion. My best friend made a sign that said “Blue nipples are the new black.” It is still displayed proudly on my bookshelf.
Four rounds of chemotherapy ensued, which caused severe joint pain, fatigue and hair loss, just to list a few of the side effects. This was followed by six weeks of radiotherapy. Chemo and radio were tough things to go through, however the treatments were tailored to my specific and individual needs, so I was confident that I was enduring only what I had to.
Even though I’m currently on a clinical trial that has me in a state of temporary menopause, I’ve never felt healthier. I’m giving myself lots of love by eating healthy foods, exercising regularly and doing things that are good for the soul like painting and volunteering.
Being recognised as a CGU Unsung Hero in the 20th year of the Collingwood vs Carlton Peter Mac Cup is a huge honour. I hope that my story will encourage others to give generously to Peter Mac’s cancer research.
During my treatment, I was constantly amazed at the high standard of care, options and information available to me. None of this would have developed without years of cancer research. It literally saved my life, and Peter Mac is a real leader in research.
When I was first diagnosed with breast cancer I had so many ambitions that were not yet fulfilled, and I worried that I would die before I had the chance to realise them. I had always thought that breast cancer was something older women got, not women in their early 20s! I felt robbed of my youth and my potential. Advances in early detection and treatment due to cancer research literally saved my life. Thanks to Peter Mac, I’ve just turned 27 and I’m not finished yet!
Please help Peter Mac continue to save young lives like mine by donating online today, at www.petermac.com/PeterMacCup.