My name is Kim. My mother died of breast cancer when she was 57. I tried not to live my life as if I was going to get breast cancer too, but as hard as I tried, the thought lived in the back of my mind throughout my travels, my study, and my eventual settling in California.
Shortly after the birth of my first child, I found a lump in my breast. An ultrasound determined it was a swollen milk duct and I thought no more about it. Five years later, after fertility treatments eventually led to the birth of my twins, I found another lump. My ob-gyn said it was probably another swollen milk duct and suggested I wait for six months, until after I had finished nursing my twins before having a scan, so that the images would be clear.
Fortunately for me, perhaps not for them, I didn’t nurse my twins very long and six months later I finally had that ultrasound. Two lumps showed up, so a biopsy was done immediately. The technician said he was 95% sure the lumps were just cysts and sent me off with information around that, advising I would get my scan results the following week. What a relief!
Meanwhile, my sister in Australia had told me that – given our mother’s breast cancer history – she had chosen to participate in a study looking at BRCA gene mutations in Ashkenazi Jews and had found out that she was not a gene mutation carrier. I, hoping it might finally put to rest my fears if I also turned out not to be a carrier, signed up for a similar study at California Pacific Medical Center’s Cancer Genetic Risk Assessment Program in San Francisco. I had my blood drawn and awaited the results. On Thursday, August 22nd, 1997, I met with the genetic counsellor at CPMC and was told that I was a BRCA1 mutation carrier.
I was shocked. I spent the weekend agonizing over whether I should have prophylactic mastectomies and reconstruction or just monitor myself carefully etc. A waste of a weekend as it turned out, because 3 days later, I found out my biopsy results. Both lumps were malignant and the decision to have a double mastectomy, was easy.
I was lucky enough to get an appointment with a surgeon later that day and went in for my double mastectomy three days later, on August 28th. Pathology reports showed a stage two, grade three, triple negative cancer and for treatment, I was scheduled for chemotherapy followed by radiation therapy. As the mother of an almost-six-year-old and eight-month-old twins, I was so determined to survive that I refused to seriously consider the diagnosis fatal.
And I was lucky. My father flew in from Australia to spend a month with us, arriving the day after my surgery. Then my best friend flew over for two weeks and helped me shave my head and get a henna tattoo (if I was going to be bald, I was going to do it in style!). My husband and son buzzed their heads in solidarity. My sister also flew over and spent a month. The mums at my son’s primary school took turns during the weeks I was getting chemotherapy, to bring my son home from school and bring dinner at the same time so I didn’t have to worry about feeding the family when I was too sick to get out of bed. Friends from all over the world sent messages of love.
Four rounds of chemotherapy saw me bald (it was the first time I really understood why we put hats on babies), skinny, and determined to beat this. Twelve weeks of daily radiation didn’t change that.
A couple of months after the radiation was finished, I had more surgery, this time to remove my ovaries and uterus. I certainly wasn’t going to have more children and it was a way to reduce my chances of ovarian cancer, which I’d been told was linked with the BRCA gene mutation.
Then it was time to get my life back.
Cancer had changed things. It changed me. Some friends had shown up in ways I hadn’t expected and as a result, our friendship deepened. Some friends disappeared when they found out I had cancer. Relationships changed. I learned to stop wasting time on the things that didn’t have meaning for me and to focus instead on appreciating the things that were important to me.
I decided not to have reconstructive surgery as I’d had enough surgeries to last me and I didn’t want to worry that if the cancer returned, I wouldn’t be able to feel it under the reconstructed tissue. Furthermore, I had come to realise that my breasts weren’t what defined me as a woman.
I’m living back in Australia now, it’s almost 23 years since my cancer diagnosis, I’m 66 and I’m still here! I’m now vegan, after reading T. Colin Campbell’s ‘The China Study’, and have eliminated sugar from my diet as well. I have outlived my mother by several years and from here, it’s all uncharted territory.
But one thing stands out – once you’ve survived cancer, you can do anything!