Finding my new 'normal'
I was halfway through a nursing degree at uni, working part-time as an assistant nurse, going out for drinks on the weekend, travelling and all the usual things for someone that age.
It was hard as a rock, quite large, and totally painless. I had only been scratching and wondered how long it had been there and how I could not have noticed it earlier. Coming from a healthcare background, I know young women have lumpy breasts and the lumps change with the menstrual cycle. So I decided I would wait a whole cycle to see if the lump changed.
Finally, after a month of waiting, I decided the lump had grown so I went to my GP. He was excellent. “That’s a good sized lump isn’t it?!” he commented. He asked about my family history and I told him I had one aunt on my father’s side that was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer in her 40s. He informed me it was unlikely to be cancer but I should go for an ultrasound and also a biopsy if they thought it looked suspicious.
"That week at uni"
we learned about the biology and characteristics of cancer and tumours. A week later I had the ultrasound and started getting worried when it was taking so long. Then the technician called in the doctor and they decided to do a FNA biopsy. When they finished, my best friend and I waited for the results and opened them as soon as they were ready. Ominous words jumped out of the page: highly suspicious, large tumour, distinct angiogenesis (has its own blood supply – typical of cancerous tumours). We looked at each other and decided I better prepare for the worst because I had cancer.
"That’s when I told my family"
about the lump and they wouldn’t even think of the possibility of cancer, even though I had decided it was. “Just be positive and it will be okay”. I HATE that word! A few days later the biopsy showed “Highly suspicious cells consistent with grade 3 breast carcinoma” and I would need to have a core biopsy. Mum was sobbing while I sat calm and asked what would happen next.
After several long, anxious days of waiting, on 30 October 2008 the core biopsy confirmed what I already knew – it was breast cancer. Again, I sat calm and collected while mum cried her eyes out. I needed to have a bone scan and chest/abdomen/pelvis CT to see if the cancer had metastasized. The GP pulled some strings and got me in to the X-Ray place immediately and I would go back to his office that afternoon to get the results. However, he told me DO NOT OPEN these results. Luckily, they were clear.
"That weekend was my 22nd birthday"
I couldn’t get into the spirit but my family and friends gathered and we celebrated my last birthday before treatment. The following day I went to the Hospital's breast clinic to see the surgeon. I was the youngest patient there by at least 30 years and they all looked at me inquisitively. The doctor advised surgery to remove the lump and some lymph nodes and could do it on Friday – 5 days time.
I postponed my exams until further notice. I wasn’t scared of surgery and breezed through it, spending 4 days in the gynaecology ward and 3 weeks with a drain under my arm. 5 days after surgery we were back in clinic to get my pathology results. I wasn’t worried about it and as the doctor discussed my results I felt more and more relieved until the last sentence: “There was cancer in 4 lymph nodes so we will need to remove your breast”. As the cancer is quite likely to come back
"they refused to do immediate reconstruction"
The breast care coordinator was waiting for me and all the nurses gave me looks of grief – they said they couldn’t believe it either. I sat in the waiting room, surrounded by grandmothers, and for the first time started bawling. Everybody stared at me, a 22 year old in the breast cancer clinic with drains coming out everywhere and crying like I was dying, and I was whisked away to a private room until I calmed down.
I started studying again and finished my last exam the day before my mastectomy – 5 December. I was so scared to see myself after the surgery, but when I did, it wasn’t that bad. The scar is bigger than I imagined, it’s about 40cm long from behind my armpit to an inch into my remaining breast. I spent another 4 days in hospital and the following week was told my removed breast had no signs of cancer.
During the surgery, I also had my gynaecologist remove part of my right ovary and freeze it as
"collecting eggs was not an option"
My breast cancer relies on hormones to grow faster so the medication I would have to take in order to collect eggs would have accelerated the cancer growth. I also started having Zoladex implants every month. This causes my ovaries to go into “hibernation” in the hope that it will protect them from chemo. The Zoladex and ovarian tissue freezing are both experimental at this stage.
I started chemo on New Years Eve and finished on 12 June. I was hospitalised only once, after my second chemo, for febrile neutropaenia and spent a week in the haematology ward (which is really nice!). I started back at uni in February despite the pleas of my doctors and managed to receive a credit and a high distinction. In May I completed the Mothers Day Classic and won a prize for the highest fundraiser in QLD, raising over $4000. 10 days after chemo finished I did my nursing placement for 2 weeks, which was really tiring.
I had 5 weeks of radiation which was a breeze until after I finished, when the skin fell off and I got an infection, however I recovered well. I will continue on anti-hormone and bone-strengthening medications for 5 years in total. If at that time there is still no evidence of disease I will be declared “in remission” at 28 years old.
"Emotionally, the post-chemo period was hardest"
and I became really depressed. I didn’t want to get out of bed and just wished I was dead so I wouldn’t have to worry about the cancer coming back. Unless I get symptoms which suggest metastasis, I don’t get any scans, which is really hard for me to deal with. Also, missing a breast is hard when trying to find clothes – let alone dating!
I decided to specialise in oncology nursing and in December 2009 completed a month long stint in the same ward I was a patient in. I loved it and met some really nice people, very brave, strong people. I now have one semester to do before I’m fully qualified and hope to go into oncology.
My cancer was very aggressive and my surgeon told me I have about a 70% chance it will reoccur or metastasise. I try to stay really vigilant (more like paranoid) with all possible signs of metastasis. Reconstruction is on the cards in 2011, and right now I’m still trying to find my new “normal”.