My amazing patient Vanessa has shared her story of coming to terms with her breast cancer diagnosis and treatment.
When did you first think think/find out you had cancer?
I went for a routine mammogram and the first I knew of a problem was when I received a letter in the mail asking me to come back for a second scan and a biopsy. I was shocked when the doctor told me it was cancer, because there was no lump.
How did you feel?
To be honest I didn’t really believe it. It didn’t seem possible. It wasn’t something I had factored into my life plan.
What happened next?
I needed to understand exactly what was going on. Because I am a veterinarian I asked Dr. Warrier to provide me with a copy of the pathology report and also asked if a review of the biopsy pathology could be done just to be sure. He and his team were very understanding and arranged for the review.
The news came just before the trip of a lifetime to the Kimberley with my partner. We’d planned the trip a year beforehand and hired a 4WD with a pop-top tent on top that we were going to pick up in Broome. We discussed it with Sanjay and he agreed that it would be okay for us to still go but that I would need to have the surgery quite soon after I got back. I downloaded a whole heap of medical papers about breast cancer to read on the trip. I learnt that for the type of cancer that I had, which was DCIS, there was up to a 40% risk of developing a much more aggressive form of cancer without the surgery.
The reading helped to re-inforce the surgical advice that I had already been given. Dr. Warrier had explained that because the changes on the mammogram affected a large area of my breast the only option was a full mastectomy. He provided a lot of different surgical options and the nipple-sparing mastectomy was a no-brainer because it seemed to give the best cosmetic result that was least surgically invasive.
I also talked to a lot of friends and colleagues who shared their experience and insights and also gave me very sound advice. One or two friends had previously experienced breast surgery and another had had an aggressive form of cancer. It was comforting to be able to talk with other people about their experiences and helped me to know a bit more what to expect in practical terms.
What was your experience with Sanjay and his team?
They were wonderful. All of the staff at the Chris O’Brien Lifehouse were amazing, from the moment I walked up to reception and met Andy to when I was discharged from hospital. Sanjay is an amazing surgeon and I feel privileged to have been treated by a world-class oncosurgical team providing cutting-edge (excuse the pun) treatments to deliver the best outcomes for their patients.
What have been your biggest challenges through dealing with cancer?
The biggest challenge was the fear of having a mastectomy and not knowing what it would be like afterwards. Throughout everything I felt very fortunate that my cancer was picked up in a very early stage and that I did not have to go through chemotherapy or radiation therapy. The surgical result was better than anything I could possibly have anticipated, but you don’t know that pre- operatively, so that was the scariest time.
What keeps you going?
My partner Jules, our two cats Joey and Albert, the joy of being alive and my work. I have been a veterinarian for 30 years and I am still highly motivated in this field (obsessed, some might say).
What advice would you share with anyone who has just been diagnosed with cancer?
Ask the team at Chris O’Brien lifehouse and your family doctor what information and resources are available for you to understand more about your type of cancer.
Get as much information as you can about the type of cancer you have and how extensive it is so that you can understand all the options that are available for your treatment and make informed decisions about your treatment.
Don’t be afraid to ask about the specific pros and cons of different treatments and whether there are different options available. Being informed will help you cope with what is going to happen next and to plan ahead.
Make sure your support network knows what is happening as well. Talk to your friends and family – they might know someone who has gone through something similar. Just knowing about the practicalities of what to expect from someone who has gone through it, can be really comforting.
It really helps to be positive about what you are experiencing and to feel positive. It’s also natural to feel scared. I was lucky because my cancer was detected early, but I still felt scared and down at times. If you are feeling down about your condition seek support from the Lifehouse team – get involved in one of their group activities like the choir, or seek counselling. A little bit of support can make a huge difference and feeling positive will really help you to get through what lies ahead.
Is there anything else you’d like to share?
I would like to express my heart felt thanks to Sanjay and all the team at the Chris O’Brien Lifehouse for the life-saving care they gave me and give others every day.