“Don’t order your coffin yet, it’s nothing,” the radiographer told Barbe Dolan during her appointment.
It was 2002. The mum-of-three from Sydney had just returned to part-time work when she felt the large, hard lump under her arm while showering. She was raising a young family – a six-year-old daughter and two sons, 10 and 12 – and hoped it was all in her head, that is was just a cyst.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t.
“I’m quite aware of my body, and when I discovered [the lump] I thought ‘Oh, what’s that’. But then you wonder if it’s your mind playing tricks on you, [whether] this might go away. Eventually I had to take the plunge,” she told Mamamia.
“At the time I went and had an ultrasound and the radiographer said, ‘You’re fine’. At that stage, it was what I wanted to hear, so I was quite happy with her saying that. But that gave me false hope.”
The lump didn't go away, so eventually Dolan went back to the doctor. They did a biopsy and found she had breast cancer.
"I was in the same room with the same radiographer, but they were talking hush hush behind their hands; it was a completely different atmosphere and alarm bells went off then," she said.
"When it appeared it wasn't just a cyst, then I thought, maybe [the radiographer] shouldn't have said that [I would be fine]. It's great being positive but I prefer to hear the worst case-scenario.
"Mind you, [this happened] 10 years ago, and I think people are more aware now, people know more about breast cancer and how it affects people, so I don't think that would've happened today."
Undergoing her first round of treatment was a big shock for Dolan and her family. Their lives "were going swimmingly, and then everything was turned upside down."
"It was horrible, I didn't know what questions to ask. At my first oncologist appointment I was told I'd be having chemo. I thought, 'I might lose some weight, so that's good'. He then told me, 'You'll actually probably put on weight, and you're going to lose your hair, your eyebrows, your eyelashes'... But I thought, 'At least I'll have my breasts'."
And that was true for five years, until Dolan found another lump in the same breast.
This time, it was a triple-negative tumour, meaning it lacked the three most common types of receptors known to fuel the majority of breast cancers (estrogen, progesterone, and the HER-2 gene). Generally more aggressive than most, triple-negative breast cancers represent around 15 per cent of diagnoses.
She couldn't have a second course of radiation to the area, so doctors recommend Dolan (who had "always been a booby girl") have a mastectomy.
"Everybody's different - for me, I'm very vain. I've always been proud of my boobs and my hair, they're a part of 'me'," she said.
"When they said, 'You have to have a mastectomy', that was absolutely devastating. I said to my husband, 'I'm not waking up without breasts, I'm not going to do it'. I looked at my options and chose to have a reconstruction at the same time as the mastectomy. It cost a lot of money and put us in a lot of debt, but I had to do it.
"It's human nature, you don't want to be different to everyone else; you want to look the same. When I lost my hair, I chose a wig that looks exactly like my hair, so some people didn't even know. I didn't want that pity in someone's eye, I just wanted to be me."
Later Dolan had her other breast removed and reconstructed because she didn't want to live with the worry of the cancer coming back there - she wanted to take fate into her own hands. The surgery took ten hours, she had to wear a corset with drains coming out of it for weeks, but she said the pain was worth it to save her life.
Dolan now works with the National Breast Cancer Foundation as a member of their Speakers Network to raise awareness for the disease that claims approximately eight Australian lives every day.
Where I was at breakfast this morning: Interviewed by the gorgeous @shellyhorton1 at the media launch of the 15th Annual #pinkribbonbreakfast2017 raising funds for breast cancer research funded by @nbcfaus Are you hosting a Pink Ribbon Breakfast this year? Regram @9honey #nbcfaus #nodeathsby2030 #pinkribbon #pink #fuckcancer #garvanresearchfoundation
Through the NBCF's initiative, Bridge to 2030, Aussies can climb the Sydney Harbour Bridge to raise funds to support new research and those affected by breast cancer.
Above all else, Dolan wants women not to get complacent and remember to check their breasts.
"Both cancers I found myself, so test yourself. Feel yourself, make sure you know your body, look in the mirror and see if there's any changes. If I had have left it any longer, I don't know what would've happened."
Bridge to 2030 will take place on Friday the 18th of May 2018. To get involved:
- Recruit and register your fundraising team at Bridgeto2030.org.au.
- Personalise your page and spread the word.
- Get your office involved. Hold a fundraising morning tea, bake sale or raffle to help your team reach their goal!
- Send reminders to your networks and encourage them to sponsor your team.
Mamamia spoke to children's entertainer Tina Harris about surviving breast cancer below.
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