health

"At 27, with an 18-month-old son, I was diagnosed with breast cancer."

Today, the 5th of January 2017, is Jane McGrath Day, and the Sydney Cricket Ground has turned pink for the annual #PinkTest. The foundation is aiming to raise $390,000  for breast cancer support. To donate, click here.

Tarah was 27 and a mum to a beautiful, healthy, 18-month-old boy, when she came across an unusual lump underneath her nipple.

She wasn’t consciously “checking” her breasts at the time. She didn’t think she had to. “It was just by accident, I just sort of grazed my nipple and I felt like a lump,” Tarah told Mamamia.

She had been told by a doctor in the past that she had naturally “lumpy breasts”, but something about what she felt that night made her uncomfortable.

In the past, the lumps had felt like “little peas” but this was different. “It was odd shaped..It was like a mass that wasn’t pea-shaped or anything. I thought it might be like a cyst or something,” she said. When she asked her husband about it, he suggested she go and seek a second opinion.

Tarah visited her local GP, who recommended she go for an ultrasound.

Three and a half weeks later she was called back into her GP. She thought they’d discovered a benign cyst, and they’d be booking her in to get it removed. At no point did she imagine that it was “anything sinister”.

“I was by myself when she told me,” Tarah said.

"Tarah was 27, and a mum to a beautiful, healthy, 18-month-old boy." Image supplied.

"I remember exactly how she looked at me. She pretty much said to me 'so your results have come back and it looks like you have breast cancer', and I didn't hear anything else after that, it was just hazy.

"I just knew I had to get home and speak to my husband."

It was when Tarah visited the breast surgeon four days later that she realised how serious her condition was. "She [the breast surgeon] put my films up on the light box, and you could see the cancer mass, and it actually measured about six centimetres.

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It was bigger than they anticipated and she said based on that size we recommend a mastectomy, chemotherapy, radiation therapy and then depending on what type of breast cancer it is, you'll need to go on some form of hormone therapy for at least three years."

Tarah was diagnosed with breast cancer on the 29th of February 2012, and on the 6th of March, she underwent a full mastectomy.

Surgeons also removed all her lymph nodes from her underarms.

"It was quite a long surgery, I'd never been under general anesthetic before so, the night I was in hospital for the mastectomy was the first night I ever had away from my son as well, I mean considering the nature of it it was pretty sad anyway," she told Mamamia. 

"I'd had a really positive breast feeding experience so the possibility that I might not be able to breastfeed again, or have another child again was devastating," Tarah recalled.

She says one of her most vivid memories was when her doctor outlined her treatment and then said "and that's if it hasn't spread". Tarah broke down in tears and for the first time asked the question she'd desperately been trying to avoid: "Am I going to die from this?"

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Up until this point, her biggest "health risk" had been trying to get pregnant with the pair's second child. Suddenly, she was told "well sorry, not for another five years at least will you even be able to consider that and that's even if you're still alive."

Tarah underwent eight rounds of chemotherapy and then radiation. Because of the type of breast cancer she had, she was also prescribed tamazicon, an estrogen blocker.

Her husband came with her during the chemotherapy sessions. She said she "felt better while I was going through the chemo because I was like, I'd sit there and I'd envision the chemo going in and if there was any little cancer cells in my body I'd imagine the chemo going in and killing it... that's what I did."

It was the aftermath that was debilitating.

"The next week it would sort of feel like you were hung over for the whole time but without the party before. Just that really unsettled sort of feeling, and just tired and lethargic and just a bit off."

I asked Tarah what stood out as the most painful course of treatment. She laughed and said, "Losing my hair probably, losing the boobs was fine!"

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"Losing the hair that was something that I really struggled with. I woke up one day, it was about two weeks after I started chemo and my hair, I had this splitting headache, like this really bad migraine and I said to my husband, I think it's time I shaved my head, because my hair just felt like it weighed a tonne.

"I was sort of sitting in the shower and he was shaving my head, and I could see the hair falling down into the shower and I could hear my husband giving me you know really strong words of affirmation like 'we'll get through this, we'll be fine', but I could hear his voice was shaky. I had a shower afterwards just to wash all the little bits of hair off me and I remember getting out and standing in front of the mirror, and just seeing this big scar across my chest, and then I had my hair and I was really pale because I was really unwell. And yeah, it was the first time I actually looked sick."

During her treatment, Tarah was terrified that she wouldn't live to see her son grow up. She considered making "videos for his birthdays and videos for the day of his wedding and the day of his first child's birth, like if I'm not going to be here." She also thought about her husband, who could be left to raise their son alone.

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From the moment of her diagnosis, Tarah put total faith in her doctors. With each treatment option came a greater likelihood that she would survive the disease which takes the life of thousands of Australian women every year.

Image supplied.

Almost five years later, Tarah is cancer free. She reflected, "You're always going to be in remission, you're never, technically, completely in the clear."

Looking back, she is still shocked that at 27 years old, she received a breast cancer diagnosis. There was no family history. No warning signs. Just an unusual lump that she accidentally discovered one night in bed.

Today, Tarah and her husband are in the midst of trying for another child.

"We're going to go down the path of IVF, we've done a few rounds and haven't had any success. I had to go through fertility preservation before chemo. Luckily I'm not infertile, but the chemo has made it slightly more difficult," Tarah said.

She is extremely grateful they even have the opportunity to explore that option.

Tarah's story reminds us that breast cancer doesn't discriminate. We need to check our breasts. Women over 40 need to undergo mammography regularly. If we have any concerns, or something doesn't seem right, we need to consult our GP.

This article was written in support of the National Breast Cancer Foundation as part of October's Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

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