Kellie’s story: ‘My non-invasive breast cancer turned into a life-threatening diagnosis’

20 Jun 2023

Kellie Shotton, 51, was diagnosed with breast cancer when she was 50 years old.

“I was first diagnosed with breast cancer just after my 50th birthday – in April, 2022. The lump was detected via a routine mammogram check-up. I had been pretty lax about having regular mammogram tests, so I consider myself lucky that it was caught. I hadn’t noticed any change in my breasts or nipples.

“The lump was determined as ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS). DCIS is considered the earliest form of breast cancer. It means that abnormal cells have been found within the milk ducts of the breast, although the cells have not yet broken through the walls of the milk ducts into the surrounding breast tissue. This form of breast cancer is non-invasive and typically classed as ‘stage 0’. It is not life-threatening, although having DCIS does increase the chance of developing invasive breast cancer later in life, which can be life threatening.

“My lump was not hormone positive, nor was it classed as triple negative as it was non-invasive. At the time, I didn’t understand what this meant.

“I was told that as my breast cancer was non-invasive, treatment would be simple: a lumpectomy and radiation. I tolerated treatment well. When I had finished my treatment program, I asked for an imaging scan to ensure the cancer was gone. The radiologist refused this request.

“At my follow-up with my breast surgeon I broached the subject once more. Thankfully, he understood that I needed this extra reassurance to put my mind at rest. While this test would mean I would be ‘out of pocket’, I went ahead with the MRI. For me, it was worth it to have peace of mind.

“It was then I discovered that my doctors had been monitoring a ‘small something’ in my right breast. After viewing my requested MRI, my doctor suggested I have that ‘small something’ – a lump – biopsied.

“Three months after my first diagnosis of Stage 0 breast cancer, I was given a second diagnosis. That ‘small something’ in my right breast was bi-laterally growing, alongside a small lump in my left breast. I was told that I had triple negative breast cancer.

“In my case, the cancer had spread outside the milk duct and was invasive – meaning I had triple negative breast cancer. Triple negative breast cancer does not have any of the three receptors commonly found on breast cancer cells: these are oestrogen, progesterone and HER2 receptors.

“I was shocked at first, then grateful that I’d pushed for that MRI. But it did mean that six months later I was facing a very different diagnosis to the one I’d been given in April.

“After further tests, I was relieved to find out that the cancer had not spread to my lymph nodes. I was schedule for a lumpectomy, followed my chemotherapy. I just wanted it erased from my body and I asked for a double mastectomy. This isn’t typically done for my diagnosis; I was referred to genetic testing. As I had bilateral breast cancer, it was recommended that I find out my family history, to see whether a mastectomy would prevent and reduce my risk of cancer down the track. My family history is a little hazy, but it’s thought my great-grandmother and great aunt had breast cancer.

“My chemotherapy was horrible – It’s unpleasant but not like in the movies, with the vomiting and the hair loss. I began my chemo course three days after Christmas and did four rounds of Docetaxel treatment. I lost my hair and gained eight kilos. By then, I did not like my body. I felt that my breasts were toxic and once again requested a double mastectomy.

“As I neared the end of my chemotherapy, my genetic testing results came back: I have a BRCA1 gene mutation. (About 5-10% of all people diagnosed with breast cancer have an inherited BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutation. A BRCA1 mutation is associated with a higher risk for triple negative breast cancer.) I felt that I’d once again hopped on the cancer rollercoaster. Ironically, since I had been the one pushing for answers and a diagnosis from the very beginning, my doctors were now finally taking notice.

“I am now booked in for my double mastectomy and reconstruction surgery in May. A few months after, I will have a hysterectomy. I’m scared about this part of my treatment. The reconstruction surgery is very long – eight hours at least. Because I have had radiation, I am limited to tram flap surgery, which uses skin, fat and muscle from my stomach to form new breasts. My friends joke and tell me they’re jealous that I’m getting a flat stomach and new breasts. I’m not so thrilled.

“Breast cancer makes you very visible. I am bald at the moment, so I talk to people about my diagnosis and treatment. I can’t really hide. Thankfully, I’ve discovered Pink Hope, where I can talk to other women in similar situations, read success stories and feel hopeful about my future.

“I have regular counselling and I cry a lot. I try not to hold it all in; I can’t, my emotions just leak out of my eyes. Thankfully, I have a very supportive husband, who is my rock. Although, through my journey, I have learned though that I am strong - stronger than I ever thought. I think that that's what you find going through a breast cancer diagnosis; that you have an inner strength that you didn't even know was there.

“It was that strength that saved me. I pushed for extra testing and it saved my life. You do have to be your own advocate. If I’d not demanded that MRI, I’d have been ignorant of what was going on inside my body and wouldn’t have seen a specialist until August 2023. My outcome would be very different to the optimistic, albeit difficult, future I’m now facing.

“I try to be thankful and grateful for this journey and stay as positive as possible. It has meant that I have information for my children so that they can now be tested and make important decisions, if necessary. I know that if my daughter tests positive for the BRCA1 gene, there is a clear path for her. My own path was windy, and full of confusion and uncertainty. But my journey means that she’ll be able to travel safely and find the answers she needs.”