Our son was born without any complications despite undergoing chemotherapy in the womb from 26 weeks. He is now six. His siblings are eight and 10. They have all seen me having treatments and side effects. They know what cancer is, but we don’t really talk about it. Tom and I decided once things start to go downhill, we will tell them what is happening.
Metastatic breast cancer cannot be cured, but with improved treatments more women are living longer with it. Over the past 18 months I’ve been on three different medications that didn’t work. I’m on a new drug now, but the cancer is slowly spreading again. Two days ago, I asked my oncologist, is this our last chance? She told me no.
I’m living each day as if I have six months left. I don’t appear sick which can sometimes be a double-edged sword. I want people to see me for who I am – a friend, a wife, a mother, a daughter. But at the same time, I need them to understand my limitations.
One time I was at a playground with my child who was throwing a massive tantrum. I couldn’t bend down and pick her up because of my spine. Other people were looking at me wondering why I was not helping my daughter. It’s hard when people judge you without knowing your story. It reminds me to be kind and not to judge because nobody really knows what someone else is going through.”
“I believed men couldn’t get breast cancer”
When Melbourne bus driver David Cowan, 64, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2017 he was incredulous, then devastated. Now he is determined to encourage other men to regularly check for changes to their breasts.
“I was taking a shower one morning when I felt a lump on my chest. I thought it was an ingrown hair or something. I didn’t do anything about it until a few weeks later, when I noticed it was getting bigger. I asked my wife Debra to take a look. She told me to see a doctor straight away.
Most men are reluctant to go to doctors. We think if we ignore symptoms they will go away. I’m lucky my wife is a nurse, or I would have waited longer. I had a mammogram and ultrasound, and the tests came back not looking good. A biopsy confirmed I had grade three breast cancer.
I felt devastated because I honestly believed men couldn’t get breast cancer. I thought it was a woman’s disease. But suddenly, there I was, booking myself in to have my breast tissue removed. I felt so out of place at the breast cancer clinic because it was just me and all these women.
The whole thing was very daunting. My operation was the easy part, compared to the six months of chemotherapy that followed.
Chemo fries your brain. It’s horrible. I felt tired and in pain all the time. Now I’m on Tamoxifen, which has side effects including headaches, diarrhoea, nausea, insomnia and heart problems. I need to take it for a minimum of five years, so I have two more to go.
I used to find it embarrassing talking about my breast cancer. Then I said to myself, you’ve got to let other blokes know about this. Now I’m happy to talk to everyone about it, especially men. I tell them to get tested if they notice anything unusual. Don’t ignore it.
There were times when I thought I might not pull through. I’m not ashamed to say I thought about suicide. I went to see a psychologist who really helped. Now, I thank god for my family every day. I’d be nowhere if it weren’t for their love and support. We’ve moved from Melbourne now and I’ve learnt to slow down. I still drive buses but just part-time. I don’t take a day for granted. We like to think we’re bulletproof but when you get a diagnosis like this you realise how precious life is.”
“Working with cancer patients is incredibly rewarding”
Adelaide psycho-oncologist Dr Charlotte Tottman, 57, has been counselling cancer patients since 2013. When she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2018, it gave her a new approach in her practice.
“My background was in the corporate sector, but in my mid-40s I did a PhD in clinical psychology and found my niche in psycho-oncology. Working with cancer patients is incredibly rewarding. It’s a privilege to walk alongside someone who is going through this often long, complicated, and gruelling experience.
Both my parents died from cancer when I was in my 20s and all four of my grandparents have had one form of cancer or another. Despite this, I was in disbelief when I myself was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2018. We were on holiday. I was putting on sunscreen when I felt a lump in my right breast. When we got back home there was a free check-up card from BreastScreen Australia buried in a big pile of mail. I looked at it and thought, oh well, if there is anything wrong, this will pick it up.
I made an appointment for the next week not really admitting to myself that there was already something wrong. I think on some level, I believed this couldn’t be happening to me. I was different. I was a health professional. I told myself that even if I did have cancer, it was not going to have the same impact on me as it did on so many of my clients.
Of course, I quickly discovered I’m no different to anybody else, which has been one of my biggest learnings. A few weeks later I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Thankfully it hadn’t spread. I discussed treatment options with my doctor and with my husband, Robin. Because of my family history, we decided to have a bilateral mastectomy.
I thought that if it could save my life, I had to do it. Our four adult children had all left home, so my breasts weren’t really required any more. I also decided against reconstruction surgery. A lot of women – certainly many of my clients – feel pressure to undergo breast reconstruction. Yet reconstructive surgery is a huge endeavour, often involving multiple surgeries, lots of recovery time and the potential for some serious complications.
My own experience with cancer has certainly given me pause to reflect on my clinical practice. One thing I’ve come to understand is the fear of recurrence. The idea that the cancer could come back sort of sticks with you forever once you’ve been diagnosed. It’s a very visceral fear, which I don’t think you can fully understand unless you’ve experienced it. There’s no guarantee that you are in the clear forever. My work with fear of recurrence is a lot better now than before.
I’m also acutely aware now that everybody’s experience is different. I always knew that intellectually, but my own experience has reinforced to me that you may have the same clinical diagnosis as someone else and yet your response to cancer, both psychologically and physically, will never be identical to somebody else’s.”
Breast Cancer Network Australia has released a special 10-part podcast series with Dr Charlotte Tottman called Upfront About Breast Cancer, available at bcna.org.au.
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