Mother, TV staffer & healthy lifestyle advocate, SYDNEY
In August, 2010, when 30 weeks pregnant, Elizabeth, then 26, was preparing to take a shower, when she brushed her thumb nail against an odd shaped lump in her breast.
Not wishing to complicate her pregnancy, Elizabeth chose to delay mention of the lump to her doctor until after the birth of her son.
When visiting her GP for a whooping cough vaccination two weeks after giving birth to James, Elizabeth raised the topic of her breast lump. Her GP subsequently performed a physical examination and organised for Elizabeth to undergo an ultrasound and biopsy.
Two days later, she was diagnosed with stage 2A invasive carcinoma breast cancer.
This is Elizabeth’s story.
“I didn’t want to complicate my pregnancy. I hadn’t experienced any [breast cancer-related] symptoms, apart from a strange lump in my breast, which was long, but not sore. So I chose to delay mentioning the breast lump to my GP until after the birth of my son,” Elizabeth said.
“Two weeks after my baby was born, I visited the GP to have my whooping cough vaccination, and raised the breast lump with her then.
“She performed a physical examination straight away, and a look of horror crept over her face,” said Elizabeth.
The GP organised for Elizabeth to undergo several tests that same day, including an ultrasound and biopsy.
“The doctors were about 80 per cent sure I had breast cancer, but had to wait two days before the biopsy report returned to confirm the diagnosis,” Elizabeth said.
“They told me I had a stage 2A invasive carcinoma, which was 90 per cent oestrogen receptor, 60 per cent progesterone receptor positive and HER2 receptor negative.
“I didn’t completely understand what all of that meant, so they gave me a book, which explained the language,” said Elizabeth.
“When diagnosed with breast cancer, I recall thinking, I have cancer. I’m going to die. I’ve just had a newborn, and was terrified I was going to die the next day or the following week.”
Due to the nature of her cancer, and the fact that it was 90 per cent oestrogen receptor positive, doctors advised Elizabeth that her pregnancy may have caused the cancer to grow more rapidly than it would have otherwise.
“Prior to my diagnosis, I hadn’t felt any symptoms. I was pregnant, so the pregnancy may have overshadowed any other symptoms. But apart from the breast lump, I don’t recall feeling any different, and the lump was painless.”
Following her diagnosis, Elizabeth ceased breastfeeding her newborn and commenced immediate treatment.
“I had a unilateral mastectomy and breast reconstruction, and commenced a six-month-long, FEC chemotherapy regimen, before starting treatment with a selective oestrogen receptor modulator used for hormone-dependent breast cancer, and a hormone suppressant.
A year later, Elizabeth was cleared of any cancer spread, although it took around nine months for her menstrual cycle to return, shortly after which, she fell ill again.
“Around Christmas 2013, I began feeling weak and developing urinary tract infections,” said Elizabeth.
“I knew something wasn’t right, and although concerned the cancer may be returning, I was frightened, so chose not to act.”
From late February to early March, 2014, while enduring excessive pain, Elizabeth visited her GP and underwent a CT scan, an ultrasound and other cancer-detecting scans.
This time, the news was dire, for the cancer had returned. Elizabeth was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer.
“When they discovered the cancer had returned, the doctors gave me a PET full body scan to confirm whether the cancer had spread,” Elizabeth said.
The PET scan revealed the cancer had spread throughout Elizabeth’s body, to her liver, lymph nodes, and into her chest cavity. Starting her on hormone therapy immediately, the doctor’s monitored Elizabeth for the ensuing two months to determine whether blocking her oestrogen levels would shrink the cancers. However, after two months, following the cancer’s expansion, the doctors placed Elizabeth on a 31 week course of chemotherapy.
“For the next 31 weeks, I underwent four hours of chemotherapy per week.
“I completed my final course in January this year (2015) after the chemotherapy had calcified the tumour in my liver, and other tumours to less than a centimetre in size.
“I use anastrozole now to control the cancer, and have a monthly hormone injection to stop my ovaries from working,” said Elizabeth.
Throughout the course of her cancer battle, Elizabeth has remained focused, upbeat and continued to exercise and eat healthily. She has also maintained her social networks and endeavoured to work as much as possible.
Her little boy has grown accustomed to seeing his Mum both with, and without hair, and any discussion of cancer with her husband is off limits at home.
“One of the most heartbreaking things for me was that while I was undergoing chemotherapy combined with some steroidal therapies, I gained 27 kilos,” Elizabeth said.
“Since completing my course of chemotherapy, I’ve shed 23 kilos, and I’m continuing to work out, and look after my body, in order to strengthen it, to help combat some of the negative effects of my cancer and the various treatments.”
Nowadays, Elizabeth has her sights set on recovery and living life to the fullest.
“For me, recovery is a daily thing. My cancer is stage four, which means there’s nothing they [the doctors] can do to get rid of it. So I live with the tumours and do what I can to control them,” said Elizabeth.
“I’m very aware of the pain, and if it gets too overwhelming, I call my doctors straight away.
“Every three months, I visit my oncologist for scans and check-ups. I often get anxious around those times, in case they find something new, or deliver any bad news,” Elizabeth said.
“Today I’m fine, but next week could be a different story.”
Elizabeth supports the initiative, For Benefit Medicines – Australia’s first ‘for-benefit’ pharmaceutical company whose sole purpose is to distribute 100 per cent of profits to local patient support and medical research organisations – and hopes they will blaze a trail for other pharmaceutical companies to follow suit.
“I think For Benefit Medicines is the best type of pharmaceutical company.
“It’s amazing this company is entering the market selling generic medicines and returning 100 per cent of profits into breast cancer patient support and research.
“I would encourage the breast cancer community at-large to support this worthy initiative, and hope For Benefit Medicines are seen as a trailblazer, leading the way for other pharmaceutical companies to follow suit,” said Elizabeth.