It was November 14, 2016, when Tameeka Jones’ doctor said the words “breast cancer“.
Then just 27 years old, with no family history, the Lake Macquarie waitress was left reeling. She’d presumed the lump she’d noticed while showering just over a week earlier was a knot or maybe even a cyst. Instead, it was an 8cm by 9cm tumour – HER2+, Stage three.
“I was pretty well shocked. My mum came to the appointment with me, and we didn’t cry or anything, but we just looked at each other like, ‘Here we go again,'” Tameeka told Mamamia.
Just two months earlier, Tameeka had lost her aunt to Leukaemia. The youngest of eleven children, she was only 36 when she died.
“It had all happened in a year – she was diagnosed, she went through treatment and we lost her,” Tameeka said. “So it was still really fresh in our minds, that ‘cancer’ word.”
As Tameeka’s own diagnosis rolled around in her mind, her thoughts kept settling on her daughter, then aged just 18 months.
“I got emotional when someone mentioned her,” she said. “Because my first thoughts were, ‘I’m going to leave her. She’s not going to have a mum to take care of her.'”
Though she has the support of her extended family, the single mum said this thought defined her attitude toward her whole treatment process.
It’s why, when doctors raised the idea of a new Breast Cancer Trials Australia study called ELIMINATE, she was determined to participate.
The trial is investigating whether, in large hormone-positive receptive breast cancers like Tameeka’s, it’s beneficial to administer hormone treatment and chemotherapy at the same time, before surgery, in order to shrink the tumour. (In most cases, these treatments are given one at a time after a mastectomy operation has taken place.)
Associate Professor Prue Francis, one of seven Chief Investigators on the ELIMINATE trial, said the research has the potential to reduce the invasiveness of breast surgery for women diagnosed with large tumours.
“If the idea behind this clinical trial is proven, a change in routine practice could be recommended for women with large oestrogen receptor-positive breast cancer, and it may pave the way for similar research for women with smaller hormone sensitive cancers who require chemotherapy after surgery.”
Listen: TV Presenter Sally Obermeder speaks to Mia Freedman about her cancer diagnosis, finding a surrogate, and navigating infertility. (Post continues below…)
Tameeka is one of more than 100 women to have taken part at more than 20 hospitals around Australia, which she did via Mater Hospital, Sydney. Her treatment involved 28 rounds of chemotherapy concurrent with tablets and injections to stop hormones from feeding cancer cells. After six months of this combination, she underwent removal of her right breast.
Though the chemotherapy left her exhausted by the end, she kept working, shopping, running errands through it all, simply in order to maintain a sense of normalcy for her daughter.
“She knew mummy wasn’t well, but of course she didn’t know the extent of what was going on. I explained it to her by saying that mummy’s boobies were making mummy sick. So I told her that I had to take medicine to make them better, and then the doctors will take this one away and give mummy a new one so she doesn’t get sick anymore,” Tameeka said.
“She was brilliant the whole way. After my surgery she was saying to all my nieces and nephews, ‘Don’t you go near my mummy; she’s got sore boobies.’ And if she wanted to give me a hug, she always knew to avoid the sore side, and still to this day she’s wary about going near my chest, and she’ll always ask if it’s OK to give me a cuddle or for me to pick her up. She was very understanding, which was great.”
That made the phone call Tameeka received on June 10, 2017, all the more satisfying.
"I'd just put my daughter to sleep when my surgeon called. When I saw her name come up [on the screen], I thought, 'Oh my God. It's a Sunday, on a long weekend. What has gone wrong?'" Tameeka said.
But the news was good: There was no sign of cancer in her breasts or her lymph nodes.
"As soon as I heard the words 'It's all gone', I ran out into the lounge-room, yelling, 'It's gone, Mum! There's none left'. I was crying, she was crying. It was a very emotional and surreal moment, because we'd been waiting for it for so long."
Of course, it's still less than a year since her treatment ended last May, so it's still early days. Tameeka still has regular scans and tests to monitor her progress, but she's staying positive, about her own health and the outcome of the trial.
"Down the track it could be my baby that has to go through it, or it will be someone else's daughter or someone's mum. And I know how hard it is watching family go through cancer treatment," she said.
"If I can get one thing out of this, it would be a better way of going through treatment for all those people who have to do it after me."