Shonel's rare cancer was missed in her first scan. A gut feeling made her insist they look again.

I wasn’t even ‘checking’.

I wasn’t even aware I was touching my breasts one night while watching television, when I felt something that resembled a frozen pea under the skin in my right breast.

My mind wandered… and wandered. I called my husband to come over and have a feel; he was equally as concerned as I. So I quite literally made an appointment for the next day to go to the doctors.

The doctor had a good feel around, informed me that most of the time it’s a cyst but good to be sure just in case. I got sent off for an ultrasound and mammogram a few days later.

Watch: How to check your breasts. Post continues below.

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The mammogram.

Originally they weren’t going to give me a mammogram due to my age. But with my family history, being close to 40 and having children, they said they could do it. Apparently younger women’s breasts are much denser, so mammograms aren’t the most effective way to detect breast cancer for that demographic. Ultrasounds are the way to go (if you find a lump and your doctor doesn’t want to refer you, go see someone else and ask for an Ultrasound referral).

But off I went, into my beautiful gown to get my breasts completely squashed in this machine. It was a lovely woman conducting the session who made me feel as comfortable as someone can in that environment.

It didn’t really hurt, it was just a little uncomfortable and short-lived. When it all wrapped up, off I went into the next room.

The ultrasound.

It was the day before the AFL grand final and it was a long weekend. As I lay there getting the ultrasound, I expressed my concern to the woman as she did it. She was so kind; she was doing everything she could to try to comfort me as she scanned my breast. 

She told me that it appeared to be nothing, but there was a little section of it that they would probably want to biopsy as it had blurred edges. She wasn’t ‘meant’ to tell me anything, yet she didn’t want me waiting freaking out over the long weekend. It was a very kind gesture, which I appreciated even though I knew it there was no certainty to her words.

She then started scanning my armpit, lymph node location, and her entire demeanour changed. She no longer looked me in the eye; she was doing those big gulps. I was lying there watching her reactions silently freaking out. I looked on the screen myself and swear I saw something where she was looking. I’m clearly no expert, but there was something different looking on the screen.


She put the machine down and said she had to leave the room to go check something… and I lost it. Silent tears streaming down my face on by one; they just kept coming. I was freaking out. My aunty had died of breast cancer many years ago and my mum of stomach cancer. Cancer had been a part of my life, and only ever with a bad end result.

As she re-entered the room she was very matter of fact and said, "Ok, that’s it. Now make an appointment for your doctor and he will go over the results early next week". 

She saw my tears; she briefly looked me in the eye and didn’t comfort me at all. I knew something was wrong. If there were any way that she could have comforted me, she would have. Yet she didn’t… F**K.

I held my s**t together enough to get out of the building, and then the tears just came flooding out of me. I couldn’t shake the thought of that woman and her reaction to my lymph node region. 

My gut told me it was cancer.

The results.

That long weekend was quite literally TORTURE as anyone who has gone through this knows too well. Unnecessarily worrying myself wasn’t going to help the situation at all as I didn’t KNOW at this stage that it was cancer. So I decided to distract myself to get through the weekend.

So I did just that, I took the kids down to the beach while my husband was at work. We had chips and ice cream and walked around in the sun. It was lovely. As lovely as it could be with this weighing me down on the inside.

Getting out and about in the sunshine certainly helped, but the thought was always there - I was consciously trying to squash it until the results came back. 

The day came for getting the results. The report said there was nothing in my lymph nodes but the breast lesion was ‘suspicious’, so they wanted to biopsy it. So far, it was going how the ultrasound woman had said, which did bring me some comfort.

I was so confused about there not being anything in my lymph though, in fact I mentioned it to the doctor when he gave us the results and got him to feel around to be sure. 

He showed me the report and what it said, but he wasn’t able to feel anything himself. I still couldn’t shake the thought in my gut, but I was relieved.

Image: Supplied. 


The biopsy.

I must admit I was really nervous going into this one. Not knowing what to expect and knowing I was one step closer to getting potentially life-altering news was petrifying. I wanted to know but only if it was good news… right?

The women in there were amazing, making me as comfortable as I could be. They numbed the area by giving me a local, and then inserted the long biopsy needle in. It was an ultrasound-guided biopsy, so I decided to watch it on the screen, which was a little bizarre, but I’m glad I did. They basically put a hollow needle in and then click a trigger that shoots it through the tumour; collecting a sample and then bringing it back out. They did this three times in different spots to make sure they had enough samples to get a clear result.

It wasn’t painful as such, more uncomfortable and unpleasant, but when they finished I still couldn’t shake the idea of this lymph node confusion. So I told them about my gut feeling, and how the report came back clear. I asked if they would mind checking the armpit again for me while the machine was here… so they did.

"Oh my gosh, I’m so sorry - I have no idea how this has happened, but you’re right, there is something here."

My heart sank, but deep down I knew all along something was there. They were able to biopsy my armpit while I was there. I wasn’t going to leave until they did. This was bulls**t and I was furious.

They kept apologising. Obviously it was not their fault; the person who had looked over my ultrasound and mammogram results had missed it on his report.

This experience, I'll never forget. Thankfully it happened very early on in my journey as it taught me that even people in the medical field can make mistakes. I NEEDED to take matters into my own hands through this process.

As much as I was furious with whoever was responsible, I couldn’t change it. I was just glad I pushed through my discomfort and asked them.


Now to wait again for the results…

"So, you have cancer."

There’s no other way I can explain it than surreal. It was numbing; acceptance and disbelief all simultaneously. At 36, I was told I have cancer in my breast and lymph nodes.

Not knowing what to think, feel or do, my husband and I literally left the doctor's office and sat in the car park. We sat… and we sat... and then we sat some more.

I then did a group call with my immediate family and we just talked it through together. My dad was upset, as to be expected (as my mum and her sister both died of cancer years ago).

I could just feel the fear in his voice as we spoke. He kept his cool over the phone for my sake, I imagine.

My brothers were obviously upset, yet everyone reiterated to me that we are in this together; they will do whatever it takes to help me through it. It was a comfort to me, but I really longed to talk to my mum about the situation.

It was too early in the process to have fully digested the news. I was ok; I knew I was strong, but was unsure what to think or feel.

I sent out a group message telling everyone close to me so I didn’t have to call everyone one by one. The incredible heartfelt messages came flooding in. I couldn’t keep up with replying to them. We continued to sit in the car park.

We were in Geelong and our children were being babysat in case we did hear the ‘C’ word. 

Here we were.

I knew I wanted to go somewhere that I could laugh, cry, drink wine and talk. I wanted all options on the table, so I called a good friend and off we went over to their house.

We did all of the above. We cracked cancer jokes till we nearly wet our pants, we cried as we wondered how the f**k I was in this situation at 36. We drank wine and I woke up in the morning wondering if it had all been a dream.

It was the strangest out of body feeling the morning after. I knew it was real; it felt strangely familiar, yet there was still an element of disbelief. 

I sat outside with my friends talking, tears streaming down.

Some of the moments from this time are permanently imprinted in my mind; others are a blur as my emotions were running all over the place. My mind had never been this scattered before. 

Listen to Mamamia's bonus episode of No Filter on 'Discovering you have the breast cancer gene'. Post continues after podcast.

We were told the first step was to meet a surgeon. The doctor who gave us the news referred us to someone, but we knew that we wanted to do the research and look into our own team.


What follows.

Everyone who you have told wants to help in some way; offers come flooding in, as do sympathy cards, flowers, gifts and messages of love. Everyone has a story.

"My brother's friend's ex girlfriend had breast cancer, do you want to talk to her?" was what I was hearing daily. It was coming at me from all angles. At the start I said yes, because I didn’t know what the f*ck else to do to be honest. 

Surely talking to people who had gone through it would help, right?

I spoke to two people which was nice, but after that I was selective with who I spoke to. It was a comfort in some way, however after talking to two, I didn’t feel the need to talk to anyone else at that point. Honestly, I knew the way I wanted to deal with cancer was in a positive frame, so I needed to be careful of people who would drag me down rather than lift me up. This I knew for sure.


Cancer can be extremely isolating. At times, even when you are surrounded by loved ones. YOU are the one going through it, YOU are the only one who feels the way you do, YOUR life is the only one at risk here. Whilst others can care for you so deeply, it’s just not the same.

There were times where I was crying and my husband Luke cuddled me in bed, and I STILL felt alone. How could I feel that when my man was comforting me? Because he can’t feel it how I do; he can't understand - through no fault of his own, it’s just reality.

Image: Supplied. 

The isolation is another hurdle you have to overcome. For some I’ve spoken to, having the ‘cancer support group’ can really help with this. This wasn’t my path, but it may be an option to explore if you are feeling this way. For me, connecting with other women on their own cancer journeys (other than the ones I just mentioned) came later, more organically.


Feeling fear.

Cancer has to be one of the most powerful words that exists. A word that penetrates you deeply and takes over every ounce of your being and slams you into a state of fear. Fear is such a big part of a cancer diagnosis. Fear of the unknown, fear of losing control, fear of death, fear of family members not having you here, fear of reoccurrence if you survive, FEAR. FEAR. FEAR.

I had to allow all of the fear thoughts and feelings to come, which was challenging. I had to sit with it and let it all become a possibility in my mind because it was a possibility in life.

I had no certainty in knowing I was going to live through this. No matter how many loved ones attempted to comfort me, it never actually brought me comfort. In the end it became frustrating to me and no one understood that. Whilst in life we all have no idea when we are going to die, when you are really faced with death the fear comes flooding in like a tsunami.

My thoughts on death.

Personally, I don’t fear death at all. I believe death is a transition where we relinquish our body and our soul remains interconnected with all energy. The universal consciousness. I believe when I die, all I will feel is love, god. Whatever you want to call it.

I guess my belief in this brings me comfort on some level, so fear of death is not an issue for me personally, even after watching my mum suffer for six months before she died.

However, with my death comes a fear of my loved ones not having me, in particular my children. THAT is where my fear kicks in, and it can be paralysing when you create space to really allow yourself to feel it. I guess technically I do fear death, but not for myself.

I was 26 when my own mum died. I’m grateful I had 26 years with her in my life, but I know what it’s like to live without your mum. It’s not something I want my children to experience, particularly at a young age before they are adults and able to process it with some clarity and a good life foundation that I plan on giving them over the coming years.

Image: Supplied. 


Surrender to it all.

There comes a point you surrender in this process, you can only do so much. You cannot fully control the situation; you can control your actions, and take charge of things that you feel may help. But at the end of the day, the universe is going to decide if now is your time or not.

You could get rid of your cancer and then die in a car accident the following day. We never really know. It’s often easier said than done, but operating in a state of fear constantly isn’t good for anyone. Particularly those who find themselves with a cancer diagnosis, as the negative impacts it can have on your body can make matters worse.

My advice here is to speak to a psychologist, loved ones, anyone you need, to get those fears out in the open out loud. Or if you don’t want to talk to anyone, try writing it down or doing some video logs just for yourself. I love looking back on my own video logs.

Saying the words out loud or releasing it into the wild is cathartic and necessary in my eyes to help accept the possibility that you may die. Because it IS a possibility. As scary as that may be and as s**t as that may make you feel, it’s possible. If you bury it deep within and don’t face it, it can do more harm than good in my opinion.

Once you have accepted that it is a possibility, it becomes easier to release and to stop holding onto it. Sure there will be moments where it continues to come and go, but you can always keep releasing it back out. There is a sense of calm when you can fully accept it. 

I was able to do this relatively early in my cancer journey, and I’m incredibly grateful for that. 

This article originally appeared as blog posts, which have been republished here with full permission.

Visit Shonel’s website to watch her docuseries LIFE ON STANDBY, read more about the next steps in her cancer journey, and find other useful resources for people navigating a cancer diagnosis. 

Shonel received her radiation therapy at GenesisCare Cabrini Hospital. Her radiation oncologist was Karen Taylor, her surgeon was  Peter Gregory and her oncologist was Michelle White.

Feature image: Supplied.