Growing up, I always knew that cancer was ‘in the family’, so I somewhat expected as a child that, after having seen both my mother and my grandmother walk the cancer journey, my sister or I would one day follow suit.
I was terrified.
My grandmother was one of six girls, five of whom died from either breast or stomach cancer. She was 40 when she was diagnosed with breast cancer, and after a radical bilateral mastectomy, went on to live until she was 72. My mum was not so lucky, and after she was diagnosed with breast cancer at 39, passed away five years later.
So unsurprisingly, though surprisingly given I was only 31, I discovered a lump whilst taking a shower. My babies were two and three months at the time.
And the usual cancer treatment began; lumpectomy, radiotherapy, chemotherapy.
I was on the tail end of treatment, six months after my diagnosis and starting to get back into life, when the rug was taken out from beneath me, and my younger sister was diagnosed with breast cancer in the same breast, in the exact same spot. She was 29 years of age.
Never in my wildest dreams did I think we’d both get cancer, but here we were, the result of ‘cancer in the family’, young mother’s with young children facing big uphill battles to retrieve our health and get back into life.
Seven years later, I was going on with life, my children now in school, when for the second time during a shower, I felt a lump within my breast. At 38 years old, I was diagnosed with my second breast cancer, but instead of being frightened, I was mad.
I was angry that once again, my life would be thrown into the chaos of surgery, treatment and tiredness. How was it even possible that I could have cancer again? I was mad because I felt ‘why me’ but also furious that of all the things my family could be good at, growing cancerous cells was one of them.
It was at this time, my sister and I met with Dr Kathy Tucker, who is here today, at the Hereditary Cancer Clinic at the Prince Of Wales hospital. Together we discovered we carried the BRCA1 gene.
Despite the news, I was uplifted, emotional and hopeful, because finally, finally I knew exactly why my health had followed the path it had, and together with my sister, we had the knowledge and power to change the trajectory of our futures, without the fear of more cancer.
As more information about BRCA1 came to life, I realised I would need to have a bilateral mastectomy and my ovaries removed, but traumatised by the idea of having to have up to three extra surgeries, I opted to continue for high-risk screening and check-ups with my oncologist, along with the usual suite of tests including mammograms, blood tests and ultrasounds.
In 2010, I met a surgeon who had a team of doctors to perform all surgeries in one operation and within the year, I underwent a bilateral mastectomy, TRAM flap reconstruction and total hysterectomy with bilateral salpingo-oophorectomy. This was major surgery that took around 11 hours with an initial recovery time of 6 weeks, but despite the inconvenience that is recovering post-surgery, once I had completely healed I realised I was completely free.
It was as though a lifetime of fear and weight had been lifted from my shoulders, and I was free to get on with my life with a focus on my future, rather than a constant need to reflect upon my past.
And while I was fearful, at no stage throughout my entire journey did I ever think that cancer would take my life, I had a lot to live for, and was going to keep fighting, no matter what.
The journey has taught me to be bolder, braver and more determined, to focus on the good in life and bounce back when things go wrong.
While my son has yet to be tested for the BRCA1 gene, my daughter has discovered she is a carrier, but together with her high risk screening team, we are excited for her future – one that compared to her grandmother’s will bring her choice, chance and hope for a future free from fear and cancer.