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Paula’s Story

28 Aug 2019 by Krystal Barter
Paula’s Story

Help us support our community and provide all Australians with life-saving information on their breast and ovarian cancer health risk by donating or fundraising now. 

I’d always known the road to pregnancy would be paved with difficulty, hurdles and heartache. I’d struggled with polycystic ovaries and irregular periods for what seemed a lifetime, and no amount of medical intervention was able to prevent the symptoms from wreaking havoc with my cycle. After many years struggling to manage it, I decided to give my body a break, come off all medications and let Mother Nature work her magic.

Unfortunately, despite the hope that things would get better, they didn’t. So, when my husband Adrian and I began talking about starting a family, I invested in the help of a Chinese herbalist to support me on my path to motherhood.

Surprisingly, the road was far less bumpy than I anticipated, and just three months after we began trying to grow our family, we were gifted with the news of a double blue line on a pregnancy test.

We were elated, and overjoyed, especially since it happened so quickly. However this was short lived when I started to bleed. I was sent for a scan and told the pregnancy may not be viable. After weeks of uncertainty we tried to remain positive. It was an emotional rollercoaster where we only had each other to talk to about it. At the 8-week scan, we were surprised to hear the sweetest sound – a healthy, strong heartbeat of our baby. The worries of the last few weeks washed away from us.

Fast forward to the last trimester of my pregnancy and I started to get, as most expecting mother’s do, some colostrum leaking during my morning showers. As I gently washed my breasts, my nipple started to get sore, and so I instinctively gave myself a breast check in the shower, discovering a small but firm lump under my left arm.

As most medical experts will tell you, lumpy dense breasts during pregnancy are perfectly normal, but given my sister had been diagnosed with breast cancer at only 26, I wasn’t prepared to take the risk, and immediately sought the advice of my obstetrician, who sent me for an ultrasound.

Despite my gut feeling that something wasn’t quite right, I was assured by the experts the lump beneath my arm was simply a blocked milk duct.

They did not ultrasound my breasts and sent me on my merry way to deliver a healthy, beautiful baby girl, Valentina, 15 weeks later.

Even though breast feeding was something I was committed to giving the best shot I could, it quickly became almost impossible to breast feed Valentina without my left nipple becoming very raw and bleeding after most feeds. This continued for months following her birth. Lactation consultants, nurses and doctors continued to encourage me to push through, prescribing antibiotic creams to ease the pain, and hopefully heal the nipple.

After four months of difficulties, my nipple simply wouldn’t heal so I finally made the decision to seek the opinion of a GP and specialist lactation consultant to try to help me heal it. After initial tests came back clear, I was referred onto a Breast Specialist.

The Specialist assured me during my first consultation that lumpy, dense breasts were perfectly normal for a breastfeeding mother, and perhaps my nipple just needed a good rest from feeding to give it time to repair. However, to make sure she was covering all bases, she ordered an ultrasound and mammogram to be 100% safe.

It was during these scans that I started to feel as though there was more to this than just a cracked nipple, and worry set in.

The next day I got a phone call from the Specialist and was told they found something suspicious and it needed to be investigated further. I was booked in for a biopsy the following day. I could feel a pit in my stomach starting to form and despite my best efforts to remain calm, everything was moving so quickly, it was hard to keep a hold on my world as it began to spin out of my control.

The day after the biopsy, I was back to receive my results.

It was four days after my 33rd birthday, Valentina had just turned five months old. I was diagnosed with stage 2, grade 3, aggressive growing, HER2 Positive breast cancer.

In one foul swoop our lives had been turned upside down, our newborn bubble had been burst. It was instant shock with a screaming baby in the background. I couldn’t believe it, 33 with a newborn baby, how was this even possible?

My body had gone through so much already this past year and now I was going to embark on the hardest thing I could have ever imagined. I instantly switched into survival mode, I had to fight this; for my newborn baby, my husband, my family.

I had to stop breast feeding that very same day and hand the feeding responsibilities entirely to my husband, as I hid away in another room until she was fed.

Following my diagnosis, the whirlwind journey immediately began; within a few days, I had CT scans, MRIS, surgery to biopsy my lymph nodes and started fertility preservation. I was told I needed chemotherapy and that it could affect my fertility so it was best to harvest some eggs and freeze some embryos if we wanted to expand our family in the future. I had to make all of these big decisions through the brain fog of a sleep-deprived, first-time mum, with a newborn baby in-tow.

With treatment beginning there was too much on my plate, so I hid myself away from the world. I needed to digest, understand and accept my diagnosis and the implications for my family. I was wiped out weeks at a time with sickness.

It was an incredibly difficult period, but we focused on our little ray of sunshine, Valentina and my well-being.

You really appreciate those you love in a new light during the dark times.

My husband Adrian has been my absolute saviour. I couldn’t have gotten through this nightmare without his support.

The day before Valentina’s first birthday, I received my last chemotherapy treatment. The week after, we threw her a big 1st birthday party. It was a celebration we all needed, surrounded by our wonderful network of supportive family and friends who helped us through the past 7 months.

A month after completing Chemo, I was booked in for my surgery. Despite not carrying a genetic pre-disposition to breast cancer, I opted for a double mastectomy and reconstruction surgery. For me, my breasts had become a ticking time bomb, and I wanted to eliminate any risk for myself, and my family’s future.

 

This big operation brought six long weeks of recovery, and during this time I was unable to carry my beautiful Valentina. It was the longest six weeks of my life. I needed someone with me 24hrs a day to help with Valentina. My poor husband, taking the reigns and playing single parent again, but it was all worth it, because a week after my surgery I received the greatest news of all – the pathology from my mastectomy came back, clear!! I was officially cancer free! No radiation needed. What a relief, after all that pain, emotional stress and uncertainty, the next chapter of our family’s young future was brighter. We could start getting on with life, no ongoing hospital appointments or illness.

Hindsight is a beautiful thing. A double-edged sword that allows you to reflect with clarity but also sometimes with the knowledge of ‘what if I’d just done something a little bit differently’. It’s when you dwindle on these feelings, you get stuck in the past, instead of looking toward the future.

So while I wish I had pushed for the ultrasound tech to scan my breasts when I found the original lump and searched more deeply for answers, I don’t wish away what was.

I am grateful for the lessons I have learnt along the way.

That everything will be OK, that your daughter will grow up happy and none the wiser, that your husband will manage and have a special bond with his daughter, that your world won’t fall apart, and that yes, you are so much stronger than you ever gave yourself credit for.

If Paula’s story inspired you, help us continue to provide all Australians with life-saving information on their breast and ovarian cancer health risk by donating or fundraising now. 

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