In Australia, 44 women are diagnosed with breast cancer every single day.
According to Breast Cancer Network Australia, this year, nearly 16,000 Australians will be diagnosed with breast cancer and they are from all walks of life. While approximately 75 per cent of new cases of breast cancer develop in women over the age of 50, breast cancer also affects young women and men.
It’s looming threat has become synonymous with everyday life as stories of survival fill our news feeds and news of diagnoses and struggle become the subject of concerned phone calls and texts.
Dr Sarah Hosking, CEO of the National Breast Cancer Foundation said it is crucial Aussie women become familiar with the unique shape, texture and feel of their breasts to increase early detection.
“We know that one in eight Australian women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime and eight women will die each day, which makes being breast aware so vital,” Dr Hosking said in a statement.
October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and today is Secondary Breast Cancer Day. To mark it, mum-of-four Lesley Stephen, 50, from Edinburgh, shares a moving letter she has written to her disease.
She speaks of the devastation of the discovery, the upheaval of her family life as she knew it, the highs and lows the disease brings, and ends with a devastating wish – “So do me a favour. Go and don’t come back. Let me live.”
The full letter reads:
Dear Breast Cancer,
There’s a few things I want to say to you today I know you won’t like. I’ll never forget the day I met you. In March 2014 I mentioned to my GP I had a cough that started as I was jogging and wouldn’t go away.
I was convinced it was asthma. It crossed my mind it might be you, but I dismissed that as ridiculous. I was only in my forties and had always looked after myself.
So when the consultant confirmed you were here, and here to stay, I felt I’d been punched in the stomach. You were a ninja in my breast – small, aggressive, stealthy and by then already in my liver, lungs and bones.
Since that diagnosis of HER2 positive secondary breast cancer you have even sneaked into my brain. I used to joke you moved faster than Usain Bolt on a good day. I will never be rid of you. Like an unwelcome squatter, you are here until the end.
Your arrival threw me into grief and loss. My face was pressed up against the glass of my own mortality. I never asked you to come – why pick me? Your presence has turned my family’s life upside down.
I’ll never forget the faces of my children, Finn, 16, Alex, 14, Archie, 12, and Evie, eight, when me and my husband Howard told them.
They’d known I’d been ill for a while. Alex asked me, ‘Is it asthma mum?’ I replied ‘No, it’s cancer’. His leg started shaking as he took in the news.
I had 12 cycles of chemotherapy up until Christmas 2015 that pushed you back, shrinking the tumours. Then I was put on Herceptin, a drug targeted at breast cancer, but you began to invade my brain. Whole brain radiotherapy shifted you.
I felt I was in a medieval torture chamber with a mask moulded into my face as lasers fired into my head. But it scared you away.
I could go on forever about what you’ve taken from me – my work, my hair, my friends, my confidence, my immune system, my future.
I live in three-month gulps of time, cramming ‘family memories’ into anxious days between scans. The milestones we take for granted – seeing our children grow up, leave school, have grandchildren – are gone.
I’ve planned my funeral and made memory boxes for my children. You have left bits of me emotionally and physically broken, but you have never taken my hope or the joy of living.
You have given me the chance to say a long goodbye to people. You have brought me the kindness of strangers (leaving flowers and cakes at the front door), and many new friends.
Last autumn my oncologist said things were looking ‘serious’ because the latest two chemotherapies hadn’t worked. My endless cough cracked a rib; I wheezed my way up the stairs to say goodnight to the children.
Every time you find a new corner to inhabit, I weep. Then the miracle happened. Last October, I was given the final place on a trial at Glasgow’s Beatson Cancer Centre and your tumours have diminished again.
I take six little pills a day. They have reduced you to hiding in a few dark corners of my lungs. I just hope you aren’t gathering strength.
This breakthrough has given me an amazing year. I’m out running again. I know one day I’ll stop responding to the treatment. I know other women on the trial have died. I’ve been to so many funerals of others I’ve met during treatment. But my hope is that, when this drug no longer works I will find another trial drug. To keep outrunning you.
I want other women with secondary breast cancer to know there’s hope. They must keep pushing against you, enquiring about research and trials.
So where are we now, you and I? I know science will catch up with you. I’m hanging on by my fingertips, waiting for that day. So do me a favour. Go and don’t come back. Let me live.