My name is Tammy and my story begins many years ago.
My mum died from secondary lung cancer, caused by breast cancer at the age of 36. She fought bravely for many years but unfortunately in 1991 when I was just five years old, we lost her. When I was much older, I learnt that my nanna (my mum’s mum) had survived breast cancer twice, also at a very young age and her mum had passed away from the disease in her 30′s as well.
As a 16-year-old, my step mum had taken me to the doctor to ask what sort of screening could be done for me to ensure that I was being as cautious as possible. At the time, we were told I was so young that there was nothing that could be done for quite a few years other than self-checks.
When I was 18, I learnt that my nanna had been tested for the BRCA 1 and 2 gene mutations and her results came back as positive for the BRCA2 gene mutation. (At least 10-15% of breast cancers are thought to be the result of inheriting a faulty gene from either your mother or father.) They believed that due to my mum’s young diagnosis that she also had the gene mutation. Nanna provided me with all of the information I needed to have the tests as well. I was very unsure as to whether I wanted to have the test done, or just continue to self-check. There was also quite a lack of information available about the options for someone like myself with such a high risk. I had many conversations with different people over the years and was never able to decide whether or not to go ahead with the genetic testing. I was worried that if I knew that I had the gene mutation that I would live my life in fear of the disease that had affected the women in the generations before me. If I was found to also carry the gene mutation it would mean that I had a 69% average lifetime risk of developing breast cancer and 17 % for ovarian cancer. Sadly, my nanna passed away in 2013 from lung cancer. The doctors had said that she was extremely lucky to have been so healthy for such a long period of time after battling breast cancer and that the radiation that she had as treatment all those years ago could be a likely cause of her lung cancer.
On New Year’s Eve 2013 I had a friend ask me what my goal would be for the year, my reply was to get through my second year of teaching and use all that I had learnt in 2013 to be the best teacher that I could be. I soon learnt that my goal would be very different. The very next day, in the shower I felt a lump. I hadn’t even been checking or looking for anything. Everything happened so quickly after this. I saw my local doctor the next day and had an ultrasound the same afternoon. I had to wait over the weekend for the results. I returned to the doctor on Monday for the results where she immediately rang a specialist and I was booked in to see her the next day. At this point I had been coping ok but I got home from the doctor and broke down in tears on the phone to a friend. From here things just kept moving very quickly. The specialist believed it was breast cancer but without a biopsy they couldn’t confirm it. The next day I was whisked away for a mammogram and a core needle biopsy. By the following Monday I had officially been diagnosed with breast cancer. I and the rest of my family were devastated. I was not coping very well at this stage, there had been many tears in particular when I had to share the news with other family members, friends and colleagues. One of the hardest things I had to do was actually say out loud, that I had cancer.
On January 29th 2014, I was due to welcome my new class of preps to school for their very first day but instead I was having surgery to remove my lump and some lymph nodes to be tested. The results came in within the week. Estrogen and Progesterone positive, Invasive Ductal Carcinoma (grade 3: high grade and fast growing, and over 3cm in size) with no lymph node involvement. The medical team was happy that they had removed the tumor as well as enough healthy tissue around it. Discussions moved on to the next step in my journey. My medical team decided that radiation was not an option as I was so young and the side effects in the long run were not worth the risk. Prior to this I had been told they were 99% sure that I would need chemotherapy. All of a sudden I was being told that my oncologist was unsure as to whether chemo would be beneficial so I had an oncotype dx test to determine the next step. Over $4000 and a week of waiting later, it was confirmed that chemo was needed to ensure that I lived a long, healthy life in the future with a slim chance of recurrence. In the coming weeks I had hormone injections to assist with the retrieval and freezing of eggs to ensure that I would have the chance to have children later in life. I was also given an injection to make my ovaries go to sleep to attempt to protect them from damage from the chemo. I began chemotherapy in March, one every three weeks until four rounds had been completed. After each chemo I had to give myself an injection to assist my white blood cells to fight infection as my count was quite low. I was extremely lucky to get through my chemo without too many side effects. I lost all of my hair, which at the time I was ok with, had some fluid retention and muscle fatigue as well as a bit of a brain fog towards the end.
During this time, I had been put in contact with a genetic counsellor and was going through the process of genetic testing. I remember being asked how I felt about it all and by this time I had come to terms with my diagnosis and was tackling everything thrown at me with a positive attitude, after all, the doctors had told me that once I got through my treatment they expected me to live a long, healthy and happy life. To nobodies surprise it was confirmed that I too carried the faulty BRCA2 gene.
Six weeks after I finished chemo in July 2014, I had a double mastectomy with immediate reconstruction using expanders. I spent four days in hospital and six weeks at home on the couch before returning to work. Once I had healed from the surgery, I had to have my expanders filled a little bit at a time to enable to reconstruction process to be completed. In August 2015, I was booked to have my expanders exchanged for permanent implants. Unfortunately, after sitting at the hospital all day, my surgery was cancelled and rescheduled for October, where I also had some fat grafting to create a nice shape and fill in any dints and gaps. The rescheduling was quite upsetting at the time but actually enabled me to continue playing netball with my team and be a part of the finals action with them. Other than a six monthly doctor’s appointment and taking a tablet every day for the next 10 years, my cancer journey had come to an end. I was no longer a victim and was now a cancer survivor.
Throughout this time, my brother had decided that he would have the genetic testing as well, so that he would know whether there was a chance that he had passed it on to his two beautiful daughters. Luckily for them all, he was negative for the mutation. Whilst I was extremely happy to know that my brother and nieces had the same risk as the general population, I did have a moment where I wondered: why me?
In June last year I faced quite a funny complication, one of my tear drop shaped implants decided to turn itself upside down. So back I went to the plastic surgeon and had surgery to change them from tear drops to round as well as some more fat grafting to maintain a nice and natural looking shape.
Unfortunately, the switch from cancer victim to survivor has been a difficult one and until very recently I had not realised how much my cancer journey had affected me. I was told many times that I was inspirational and so strong. It was hard for me to listen to and accept what people were saying. I can now see that on the outside I showed great strength, determination and positivity throughout everything. Once I got through everything, I pushed away any negative thoughts and feelings. All of a sudden, less than a year ago, everything started to unravel. I suddenly admitted to myself that I not only had permanent physical scars but there were some mental scars as well and I believe this affected my long term relationship to the point where unfortunately my constant support throughout all of this was no longer in my life. I could not openly admit that there were some days where I would find it extremely difficult to look in the mirror and see what I had been through, looking at the constant reminders of a journey I will never forget. Fast forward to now and with the support of some amazing people, I have come out the other side and am learning to live my life as a cancer survivor.
It has been five and a half years since my diagnosis and I am extremely grateful for all of the love and support that was shown to me throughout it all. I am fortunate to have had a line of people wanting to assist me in any way that they could, whether it be sitting on the couch with me whilst I recovered from surgery, providing so many laughs whilst receiving chemotherapy that I thought we would be kicked out, forcing me to take a break whilst I was at work after having chemo the day prior, telling me I could rock a bald head hairstyle and giving me amazing gifts along the way.
I have often been asked if I wished I had had the genetic testing earlier or preventative surgery. I can honestly say that even now, having been through it all that I could not have made the decision without being extremely conflicted.
I have learnt a lot throughout my experience and hope that I can at least pass on some knowledge to someone and to reiterate how important it is to know your family’s history.