I’ve made Indonesia my home since my early 20’s. I had my two children young, and breast fed them each for more than a year. I have always been relatively health-conscious, strict about our diets (our house was semi-vegetarian, and we largely stayed away from processed foods), active happy lifestyle, and indulged very little in the way of ‘lifestyle indulgences’ including alcohol. I commenced menstruation late, maintained normal body weight pretty well throughout my life, and have no history of breast cancer in my immediate or extended family. I’m mentioning all of this as they are all factors that apparently make one more likely to develop breast cancer, and I was negative on all of them.
However, from my 20’s, I often had cysts in my breasts. The cysts would come and go, worsen during my cycle but seemingly shrink once I menstruated. I had numerous mammograms, biopsies, and one breast-cancer scare in my late 20’s, but as the years went on without any problems I just accepted lumpy breasts as my only “health” issue.
After I turned 40 I noticed the cyst issue seemed to be worsening. My breasts regularly felt so full and tender. In May 2011 I had yet another mammogram in Singapore, and while the doctor advised me to ‘keep a close eye on things’, I was given the all clear. But in the September of the same year, I noticed that one of the lumps was a bit different. It was hard (cysts are usually squashy), seemed to be increasing in size fast, and not really going down when I got my period as per the others. I showed my best girlfriend, memorably saying ‘Have a feel of this! It seems to be growing so fast…if this is breast cancer, I’m f…ed!’
A week or so later I accompanied my friend for a gynecological procedure in Darwin. While waiting for my friend to recover from her minor surgery, I got another mammogram that led to an urgent double-needle biopsy then ultimately the announcement. Treatment must commence immediately as I almost certainly had breast cancer and it was barely ‘early detection’.
My life did change from that moment. Within about a fortnight I commenced chemotherapy (a combination of two drugs, plus steroids to minimize the side effects). As my tumour was highly aggressive and already 1.9cm in diameter, I was advised to go for ‘maximum loading’’ that made me feel like being skinned and run over by a truck. The idea was that if the chemotherapy was effective, the tumour would shrink—meaning less invasive surgery, and the doctors would know which drugs worked on my kind of breast cancer for possible future use.
I had a 6 rounds of the crazy heavy duty chemotherapy, lumpectomy, and 3 lymph nodes removed and tested. This was then followed by maximum exposure radiotherapy, and 18 rounds of another IV administered (also with steroids) ‘specially targeted’ drug called Herceptin to ‘mop up’ any cancer cells that might have somehow travelled in my body. The treatment was finally concluded in July 2013, and was incredibly traumatic for both me and my family. Now I just have blood tests and checkups every 6 months, and an annual mammogram. Though I now seem to be cancer-free, they say the type that I had almost always reappears within 3 years of initial diagnosis.
My physique changed due to the treatment. It took me two years to shed the steroids-triggered weight gain. One of my chemotherapy drugs causes permanent hair loss in about 4% of women who are prescribed it, and I’m one of them. My doctor didn’t know since the drug was relatively new. I believe even with the warning I would’ve taken it as it was the best drug for my kind of tumor. I have lost quite a lot of my right breast. It took about two years to heal and longer to get used to. Now I hardly think about it, enjoy a good sex life, and look normal in a bra or clothing.
Without doubt I look at life differently. I consider myself beyond blessed to have my life back, perhaps a little bit better than before. Relationships are all important; it’s hard to get interested in promotions and mortgages after you’ve had a good look at death. I’m celebrating each and every birthday riotously, taking as many trips as I can afford, and telling my family and friends how much I love them on a regular basis. Life is beautiful and I refuse to have a bad day.
With early detection you can save your life, and even a sizeable part of your breast. Check your breasts regularly, and not hesitate to follow up any abnormalities you find.
Written by Sarah Forbes | Edited by Maggy Horhoruw