There’s nothing quite as uplifting a bit of good news on the breast cancer front. And the statistics released this week by Cancer Council Victoria is just that.
More Victorian women who are diagnosed with breast cancer are beating it, with 89% of them still alive after the magical 5-year survival period.
That’s significantly up on the survival rates some 20 years ago. The message now is and should remain “don’t let the better detection and treatment make you complacent”. Just like there’s nothing like a bit of good news on the breast cancer front, there’s nothing more harrowing than being diagnosed. It’s literally a life changing experience, as anyone who has been through breast cancer knows.
I am amongst them. Complacency isn’t in my vocab.
I was 39 when a palpable lump appeared on my left breast. Breast cancer was the last thing on my mind, with an 18-month-old baby, a happy marriage and a great job. When my surgeon told me he was fairly sure we were looking at cancer, my reaction was:” What are you talking about? I don’t have time for cancer!”
In an afternoon, the meaning of “time” changed.
Looking back, it is hard to discern what was more harrowing. Coming home to the hugs of a baby I wasn’t at all sure I’d be there to care for, for much longer? Having a big bit of my left breast cut out, along with a fair few lymph nodes to make sure there was no cancer in them (there wasn’t)? Undergoing radiotherapy? Dealing with chemical and surgical menopause? Battling incurable lymphedema caused by a small mosquito bite? Dealing with wanting my illness kept out of the public domain when I was a public figure but having Crikey assert that my absence from the ABC airwaves was because I had been removed from my position as host of The World Today?
However one of the biggest of the battles was having to pretend, for years after surgery, that I was “back to pre-cancer normal” when I felt that my body had been struck by a terrorist who’s evil I would have to forever be on guard to fight off – and when I no longer knew what “normal” was.
Surgery was really just the beginning. But as I learned, the surgeon him or herself can be the beginning, the middle and the triumphant victory over a torturous mind game.
A great surgeon is like winning lotto when you’re on your last kopek. Professor David Gillett was my lucky number. If not for his skill with a knife, his gentle personality, his willing me to health, his constant availability, and that he understood the mind game cancer plays, I might have gone certifiably mad in the years that followed diagnosis. Had anyone other than Professor Gillett and his off-sider Catherine Kennedy known what was happening to me, they might have offered me a ride to a psychiatric facility!
Every pain I felt had me convinced that the cancer had distantly returned.
I can’t even recall the number of bone scans I put myself through, every twinge of my aging body ushering in a new bout of paranoia. There were a few brain scans too, along with blood tests and cervical ultrasounds, few of which I would tell my family I was undergoing. With the cancer gone, I was meant to be “over it”, cured, recovered, wasn’t I?
There were the “little white pills” I insisted on using for longer than needed. At first, Tamoxofen (the go to drug for women with oestrogen positive tumours ) and then Letrozole to back it up, were crutches as well as chemical aids.
Swallowing them made me feel I was striking another blow at the terrorist
And there were the floods of tears and deflation every time I heard of a woman dying of the disease. For near enough to ten years, the terrorist in our midst lurked everywhere. Not even reaching the 5-year mark made me feel at ease. Cancer dominated my life.
I am not sure how, but throughout this reign of terror, I managed to finish a Law degree and return to work and slowly, in time, I reached a point where I could tell people I had had breast cancer (it was a year after diagnosis that I plucked up the courage to tell my mother: I thought she wouldn’t cope knowing her daughter had a life threatening disease). But each turning point was like mounting a military offensive to overcome an insurgency. In time, the battles became easier. But though I knew the necessary manoeuvres, they remained battles.
Still, I weep when I hear of another women dying of the disease. Still, I feel shaky at Pink Ribbon Breakfasts that I can now at least, find the psychological strength to attend. And still, I sleep uneasily ahead of scheduled mammograms.
Time, good luck and great medical attention have given me a deep well of strength to support friends going through the trauma of breast cancer – because cancer no longer dominates my life, as it will one day no longer dominate the life of one of my friends who recently faced off with the terrorist. It simply inhabits a corner of my life, mostly in respectful silence.
But even the good news about fewer deaths from the disease, about new genetic testing to better diagnose types of breast cancer, and about new and better drugs don’t diminish the fear of the subdued terrorist which given the chance, might attack again.
That’s in part the mind-game of cancer. In part, it is a message about the danger of complacency, as any good breast cancer surgeon will tell you.
“We would like to thank Wendy Harmer and her web site TheHoopla for allowing us to include this powerful article on The Strathfield Breast Centre’s web site.”
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