The things every woman needs to know about breast cancer

There are around 15,050 women diagnosed with breast cancer in Australia every year and while we hear a lot about cancer awareness and how to detect the disease, it’s often the more personal stories that hit home the most.

Like all cancers, breast cancer can be a harrowing and difficult disease to come to terms with. Women have told stories of feeling like they had lost control and that their bodies had betrayed them.

There are the usual side effects we often hear about, like hair loss due to chemotherapy or a complete loss of appetite, but there are also things like early on-set menopause, weight gain, hot flushes and joint pain.

For women who have to have one or both of their breasts removed, there is the stark reality of having to come to terms with a part of your body being taken away from you – something many say they struggle to deal with.

Amongst the negatives though, there are stories of hope and of love. The husbands who rise to the occasion and take care of their wives and family under immense pressure and heartache; the friends who organise catch-ups and make an effort to treat you with the same love and good-natured humour they always have; and for some it is even the parents, who although they are ageing themselves, step back into their role of champion and caretaker.

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A number of women shared their stories with Breast Cancer Network Australia, where they opened up and gave honest accounts of their experience with the disease.

Losing my breasts turned into a positive

“In October 2010 I had a phone call to tell me that the results of my mammogram were not good. Breast cancer. I was 60 years old.

“After studying the statistics and the side effects I decided to refuse chemo after my mastectomy. I had not been ill, was not ill and didn’t want to be ill. They had taken the cancer with the breast so I wanted to be left alone to get on with my life.

“As the days and months passed I became more and more depressed trying to mask my absent breast with a padded bra. I was uncomfortable and really hot in the Queensland summer. I chose not to venture out and spent most days at home in my nightdress. My doctor prescribed antidepressants but they really didn’t help. I was not small breasted so this large right breast manifested as an abnormal growth on my body. I hated it.

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“Two years later and the surgeon agreed to remove my right breast. As soon as I woke from the operation I was at once relieved and excited by my new look. I might not have any breasts but I feel great. I don’t have to wear a bra and do not feel at all embarrassed by my body image now. The doctors said there was no evidence of cancer in the right breast and after two years I am still cancer free.

“At 62 years old I am not interested in having reconstructive surgery, in fact I am quite enjoying my new body.” Maureen, QLD.

My mum rose to the occasion

“I was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 45.

“A week after my diagnosis, and one day before a radical mastectomy, my mum Bev arrived on my doorstep. Mum was no stranger to this sort of thing, having done exactly the same 11 years before, after my sister’s breast cancer diagnosis. Mum dropped everything to be with Sonya, who sadly passed away in a very short period of time. This launched Mum into a support role for my brother-in-law, who was left to raise three young children alone. She became a much-loved and integral part of their lives.

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“So, when we found out my news we feared the worst. Two years down the track, my treatment has finished and I have picked up where I left off, but in that time Mum has been with me through surgery, chemo, and radiation. She put her busy life on hold, including her active involvement with her community providing meals, babysitting, transport, and other services to people who are sick or in need, and volunteering at a school for teenage mums, looking after their children while they attend class.

“Mum doesn’t see what she does as extraordinary; she’d say she’s just doing what anybody else would do, but I know that’s not true.

“Mum, I know how fantastic you are; now everyone else does too.” Marianne, QLD.

It’s not always an empowering experience

“I often feel like I must be a very negative person when I read of survivors who tell their stories after breast cancer diagnosis and mention that it has been a positive experience and the wonderful ways that they have been enlightened or motivated to be a better person.

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“I wonder if many people feel as I do. I feel fat (a new experience for me). I have no breasts any more – just scars. My hair is short and there’s not much of it. I don’t feel sexy or feminine and every time I try to do some exercise to lose weight, I am overcome with hot flushes, joint pain and heart palpitations that really scare me. Nothing about my experience has been positive or made me feel special or inspirational.

“My journey with breast cancer (double mastectomy and chemotherapy) and then years of tamoxifen has been, quite honestly, a bloody nuisance! I read of many who have overcome so many obstacles – many more than me and with an attitude that I would embrace if I could. I definitely don’t want to depress newly diagnosed women but I wonder if there really is anyone else out there that feels like me?

“I have wonderful support from my family and my partner but ultimately it’s my life that has been affected negatively.
I would love to feel like ‘celebrating’ my surviving this diagnosis but deep down I can see all the ways that it has changed my life – not for the better. I am no longer fit, healthy or attractive, and that is not making me feel empowered. I admire, however, all those wonderful women who are fighting, have survived and are making a difference in their own or in other people’s lives. I just wish it could be me.” Leanne, WA.

Making friends in the most unlikely places

“At age 43 I was extremely busy but not very active, when my breast cancer diagnosis arrived. I undertook the whole range of treatment they threw at me. Acute symptoms of menopause aged me overnight. Sore ankle joints, hot flushes, insomnia, depression and anxiety were constant sources of discomfort to me.

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“In an attempt at self-help, I attended a Cancer Council series of workshops on ‘Life after Cancer’. There were other women in the group who were travelling the same road as me, which was a consolation. I decided to focus on exercise and losing weight, the latter being another result of the chemotherapy.

“To begin with, I started walking a couple of times a week. Then at a neighbourhood gathering, I discovered that Sandy who lives two doors down the road, was walking regularly in the same direction. We both made a small change to our starting time and now walk together.

“That was four years ago and we now walk five mornings a week, 30 minutes up and down hills, rain or shine, with a change of direction on two of the days.
My strong recommendation for anyone wanting to make a lasting habit of exercise is to get a buddy. To begin with, not wanting to let your buddy down can keep you going until motivation kicks in. Motivation comes when the benefits, and there are many, are truly realised.” Jenny, SA.

Have you or anyone you know suffered from breast cancer? Do you regularly get checked for breast cancer?

Australian women aged 50-74 are eligible for free breast screenings every two years. Click here to book yours.