As a mother of a nearly 16 month old, I never expected a pain in my left breast to end up being something so scary and life changing. Sometimes in life it feels like everything aligns so perfectly for a reason. If I wasn’t breastfeeding Lenny, I don’t know if I would have ever known.
Lenny had always been a boobie monster, she always fed quite frequently and I noticed one day that she started favouring my left side, even though it was always the side that had the least milk. She would head-butt my left breast and push on it and it began to hurt, almost like a bruise. I thought nothing of it as I assumed that she had irritated that side and that it would go back to normal. I had mentioned it to people in conversation and after a while I decided to get it checked as I was worried it was a blocked duct or early onset mastitis. After a visit to my GP, she though it may have been a cyst. I can still remember her saying to me “Oh you are only 34 but we might get a mammogram and ultrasound just in case.” I thought nothing of it, went to get my scans and on Friday the 17th of September 2021 my doctor called me as I was walking around the lake with my sister and said “they want to get a biopsy, I have booked you in for Monday”. All weekend I worried about the worst. I can remember on Monday morning being at work and walking into the office of my amazing HR manager and broke down. All I could think about was leaving my baby without a mum. I met my husband at the breast clinic and straight out the specialist said I had cancer. My whole world crumbled before my eyes. Everything I had, everything I worked for. I felt ill, I felt empty and I was so scared.
After this everything moved so quickly. Test after test to make sure my body could handle what it was about to endure. I was told to think about my future family. Did we want more children? My oncologist asked what I had decided regarding future children. Did I want to have eggs taken? This would delay treatment and I decided to pass on this option as I wanted to make sure that I was around for Lenny. Future children weren’t my top priority. I was given the option to take a monthly injection to put my ovaries to sleep which I opted for to protect my eggs. They also mentioned to me that if I had the BRCA gene I would also have to look at having my ovaries out too. Lucky for me the test came back negative.
I had to wean Lenny quickly so I could start my treatment. I had two weeks to do it. I am so thankful that she took to formula straight away and was used to the bottle from daycare as I had expressed for her from six months. But this changed our whole routine. I had always fed her to sleep. If she was upset she would always want to feed. What would I do now? This just added more complication to an already complex situation. And then there was Covid. Bloody Covid. That just made things even harder. Lenny was in daycare. I couldn’t risk her being there as I couldn’t get sick, so she had to leave and be home with me full-time during my treatment. I have always been very career orientated. After having Lenny, she started going to daycare at six months old as I wanted to get back into my job pronto. I never would have thought that the following year I would be at home full time, fighting a horrible demon while also trying to stay strong for my baby girl.
I ended up having 6 months of IV chemotherapy. The first two were fortnightly for four rounds and the second two were weekly for twelve weeks. At the beginning the tumour was quite small, but after a few months of the first chemo it was bigger and there were multiple in the same area. These could have always been there but due to the changes from breastfeeding it can mask what is actually there and can make it harder to determine. Which is scary. By the end of the chemo my body couldn’t take anymore and my bone marrow suffered so I had to stop three treatments early. Covid also complicated my treatment plan, if I had a slight sore throat or any symptom I would have to go and get a PCR test which would delay treatment. Lenny also caught Covid during my chemo so I had to isolate for a week and so treatment went behind again! This is something you don’t really think about until you have a medical condition that required millions of appointments and hospital visits.
It is funny, when you become a mum your priorities completely change. I wasn’t worried about losing my hair, I wasn’t worried about loosing my breasts. The biggest worry for me was leaving Lenny. There were times it made me sad I had to loose these things but it made it easier having Lenny as a distraction. She kept me going, she kept me strong and she kept me moving. My little guardian angel, always watching out for her mama.
I decided to shave my head before it began falling out, as I thought it would be less traumatic. My three sisters shaved their heads with me and raised over $12,000 for a local breast cancer charity. My hair began to fall out after the second fortnightly treatment. It was quite confronting but gradually became used to being bald. Everywhere, except my legs. Why is it that the hair I didn’t want stayed?!?!
From the start, I decided the right choice for me was to have a double mastectomy. I never considered the other option they gave me of a lumpectomy. I wanted them gone. After my chemo I had to wait for my bloods to go back to normal before I could book surgery. This took several weeks. I also had to get a biopsy to take out one dodgy looking lymph node, which ended up being cancer positive. This meant I had to have an auxiliary clearance when I had my mastectomy. It is strange but I was actually more nervous about the biopsy. When the big surgery day came, I felt relieved that finally this demon was going to be cut from my body. To have aggressive cancerous tumours in your body and knowing about it is such a head-fuck! I could feel it and knew it was there, every day for over six months. Every day the first thing in the morning I would think of “was it bigger? Was it spreading?” The day I had my double mastectomy was a day that a lot of stress disappeared from my mind. Being young and wanting more children also can complicate the type of surgery you can have. I opted for the tissue expanders as this would give me time to decide; however, if I was wanting another child, using my own fat and skin was not an option. I decided on implants which I will have once my radiation and chemo tablet treatments are complete.
After a double mastectomy they take the tissue to pathology and test both sides. My right side (this was the good side) was completely clear. My left side still had a 1.7mm tumour and when they tested it only .2mm of cancer was left behind. I was so happy. I just assumed the whole tumour left would be cancer still. They also found pre-cancer on my left side in another area (pre-cancer doesn’t get picked up in scans and chemo doesn’t tend to kill the cells), I am so thankful I chose to have a double mastectomy, so was my surgeon! Because there was still cancer cells in the tumour and that one lymph node my team of doctors decided they wanted me to do more treatment. They wanted to throw everything at it. So here I am doing additional treatment after my IV chemo; 28 sessions of radiation and following that six months of chemo tablets.
What have I learnt from this experience? I have learnt that you aren’t immune from deadly disease when you are young. It can happen to anyone, whatever the age.
I have learnt that education is not there for young mums. Since being diagnosed I have heard so many stories about young mums breastfeeding and being diagnosed (or misdiagnosed as mastitis) with breast cancer. It is more deadly for younger women and harder to detect when breastfeeding yet there is no education around this? There needs to be more education around monthly checks and scans and tests need to be more widely available for young women.
I have learnt that life is short and that each day is so precious. I am so thankful everyday that Lenny found it when she did. Who knows where I would be now if she hadn’t. As a mother we put our health aside when we have little ones. I am so lucky that I went to the GP and I am even luckier that she gave me a referral for further testing! Not everyone is this lucky.
#getyaboobschecked and if you don’t like your Drs advice get a referral or opt for more testing! It could save your life.