With no known family history of breast cancer, I was overdue for my annual mammogram. When I finally got around to booking in, expectations of discovering anything sinister was low.
Within a few days of the screening, I was diagnosed with a triple negative breast cancer at the age of 55, it was October 2018.
Weirdly however, had I been ‘on time’ for my mammogram, they may never have detected the cancer, as it was in its very early stages – so early in fact, that none of the specialists could even feel it. My decision to delay my mammogram actually saved my life.
Whilst I fell within the ‘regular’ age range for a breast cancer patient, my breast surgeon recommended that I have genetic testing done as a significant number of women with TNBC also have a BRCA gene mutation. She suggested the testing be done as early as possible because if I were to be positive, it would alter my course of treatment.
I had the genetic testing done at the beginning of my chemo treatment, in December 2018 and the results came back stating that I was BRCA1 positive in late Jan 2019.
This additional information allowed me the chance to digest the change in my treatment plan, as I would no longer undergo radiotherapy, and I had plenty of time to consider options relating to the risk reducing mastectomy and reconstruction.
As I had undergone a lumpectomy before my chemo treatment, I had some time up my sleeve, three months in total, to recuperate from the chemo before the major surgery and was able to get my body physically ready for the ordeal.
To ensure my ovarian cancer risk was also reduced, I then had my ovaries removed in March of this year, 2020. I am coming up 2 years since diagnosis and with no evidence of disease, I am living a well and happy life.
After discovering my BRCA status, I had my family tested and we discovered my father also has the BRCA1 gene which meant the gene had silently travelled through the family until it popped up with me.
Although the last two years have been incredibly difficult with many surgeries, and the chemo – I have pulled through it with the support of an amazing team of oncologist and surgeons. My breast surgeon was very quick to suggest I join a research project with the Baker Institute looking into how exercise through chemo impacts the body’s ability to endure and come out the other side. I had a free exercise physiologist to work with for 12 months, we followed a program and to this very day I am so incredibly grateful I said yes to taking part in that study.
I underwent the five months of chemo while I continued to work full time and I exercised most days to a set program. It was so hard some days to keep going but I recovered from each round of chemo well and without any secondary illness or infection. My energy levels were certainly better than they would have been with no exercise and I lost 12 kg. I was able to return to my normal level of activity within about 6 weeks post chemo. The same thing happened with my recovery from the mastectomy and reconstruction, I was back at work by week four and returned to most activity by about six weeks.
The blessing from all of this for me was a complete change in lifestyle habits. I now eat better; I have maintained my new weight and I continue to regularly exercise several days a week.
I am lucky to have no ongoing health issues that make my life difficult. I do experience some mild neuropathy from chemo – but it’s manageable. I know the disease can easily reoccur, but I don’t think about it on a daily basis. I am so grateful to have my life and to be able to live it.
On reflection, I wish that I had known earlier that there are different types of breast cancer and that some are more aggressive. I had no idea and feel that if I had some education around this, I may have been more diligent with routine checks, even without a family history.
I also wish other cancer patients were educated by their team of specialists on the utmost importance of exercise, during and after treatment and how it contributes to a better long-term outcome. I know many patients aren’t made aware of this as an integral part of treatment.