Mel's Story - "At 27 years of age I was diagnosed with a rare, aggressive cancer"

07 Oct 2022

At 27 years of age I was diagnosed with a rare, aggressive cancer - Stage 1, Grade 3 Triple Negative breast cancer. Triple-negative breast cancer is considered an aggressive cancer because it grows quickly, is more likely to have spread at the time it's found, and is more likely to come back after treatment than other types of breast cancer. Later I found out I also carry the BRCA1 genetic fault, passed down from my mum's side of the family. This comes with its own risks - I am more susceptible to develop other forms of cancer, such as ovarian, fallopian and pancreatic cancers. I am high risk.

I was born and raised, just over the ACT border in Queanbeyan. I had a relatively normal upbringing - I was blessed with a loving and supportive family. I am a teacher at the most amazing school in the Tuggeranong valley. I have amazing friends and family who are there for me no matter what is going on in their lives or mine. I have the most amazing, supportive, hard working husband, Steven, who I met at 19, in one of the capital's finest establishments, Mooseheads nightclub. After our dream wedding we had our two beautiful babies - Scarlet, who is 6 going on 13, and Fraser, our happy little miraculous accident, who is 2 in December. I call him our miracle, as after treatment we were told by my specialists we had less than a 50% chance of being able to conceive.

When starting chemotherapy, we had the difficult choice of freezing my eggs to plan for the future of our family, or commencing treatment immediately due to the fact that my cancer was severely aggressive. We chose the option to treat the cancer as we already were lucky enough to have our beautiful baby girl Scarlet. During covid lockdown, we couldn't keep our hands off each other and fortunately for us, Fraser came into our lives. Chemotherapy is one of those treatments that can take everything from you - hair, independence and fertility. It is demoralising, draining and isolating. Luckily for us, we were able to complete our family, which not all cancer patients are lucky enough to do.

Growing up, conversations around my dinner table were quite different from my friends. Both aunts on my mothers side were diagnosed with breast cancer while I was still in high school. Over the years they both were diagnosed with cancer in other areas of their bodies. Our conversations consisted of being aware of bodily changes, resilience, courage and the future. Being aware of changes in our body, especially our breasts, was second nature.

I remember the day I found my lump very clearly. The night before we had celebrated my sister's engagement. It was a beautiful celebration, surrounded by friends and family. I was lying on the lounge, a little worse for wear and felt a sharp pain in my side. On inspection I found a hard, pea sized lump in my left breast. Me, being the optimist, thought it may have been hormonal or a blocked duct as I had my period and had not long finished breast feeding Scarlet. Hubby, being the expert boob man, thought otherwise and encouraged me to get it checked out as he felt it wasn’t normal. I was referred for an ultrasound and a core biopsy. I was relatively unconcerned at first, but after the technician had completed the ultrasound she said she found something abnormal and needed a second opinion from the head sonographer. After looking at the images he recommended a mammogram straight away and another ultrasound to confirm his suspicions. Within a week from that appointment I had my diagnosis and had started chemotherapy at the National Capital Private Hospital here in Canberra.

As things progressed really quickly, I was overwhelmed. The lovely nurses in the oncology wing were super supportive and were always down for a chat or reassurance over a cuppa. They handed out the standard forms of information and connections to local support organisations I could reach out to. They really encouraged me to read the Pink Hope pamphlet as previous patients of theirs had found them really helpful. They spoke highly of the support of local women had received and knew that Pink Hope could support and provide education and awareness, not just for me, but for my entire family. I cannot stress enough how comforting it was to know that there was a community of women, here in Canberra, who had gone through similar experiences to me. I was able to connect with a community to understand what was happening to my body.

After chemotherapy, I had a discussion with my surgeon about my options. Being the teacher and inquisitive person I am naturally, I had already completed my own research, including conversations with the women at Pink Hope. My surgeon wanted to just take my left breast, but knowing my cancer was aggressive and there was a high risk it would return, I was adamant I wanted a bilateral mastectomy. Thankfully, we had private health and were able totake both breasts as well as reconstruction in one surgery. I also had 3 lymph nodes removed preventatively, and fortunately my cancer had not spread to them. It is so important to know all your options before you decide on your path of treatment and that is why the Pink Hope community is so indispensable.

Most people would think that after treatment and getting the all clear from doctors that the fight is over. Unfortunately for myself and others like me, with rare, aggressive cancer diagnosis that is not the case. Your scars are constant reminders of everything you have endured. There is a constant mental and physical battle. I have nerve damage on the side of my right breast from my surgery. In April last year I had my 17th surgery - a bilateral salpingo oophorectomy. In basic terms, I had my ovaries and fallopian tubes removed to reduce my risk of ovarian cancer. This comes with its own side effects - i am on a low dose of hormone therapy to ensure my body doesn’t go inot menopause as well as to prevent me from developing osteoporosis. I am also infertile and cannot have any more children. I have chronic pain in my joints and back and often have to take painkillers or have physiotherapy to relieve this. I have annual scans and blood work to make sure my cancer has not reared its ugly head in other areas of my body. I am always nervous when this happens - there is always the ‘what if’ in the back of my mind. I know my husband also thinks this and is constantly worried that he is going to end up a widower and our children grow up without their mum.

Sadly, just before Christmas last year we lost my aunt, my second mum. She was my rock throughout my treatment and we had a special bond that cannot be described. Her cancer returned aggressively in her ovaries and quickly spread to other areas of her body. Even though she fought the hardest battle to overcome her illness, this took an immense toll on her physically as well as mentally. We were there for each other in our darkest days and, to take our minds off things, we enjoyed a shopping day followed by lunch on the Kingston foreshore and a cheeky wine, always accompanied by my mum and sister. I was fortunate enough to see her in her final days and joke about breaking her out of hospital for one last shopping trip. She was full of laughs and lived her life to the fullest - travelling Australia with my uncle in their caravan.

Her zest for life has shown me that I cannot live with the dark thoughts and the ‘what ifs’. We need to grab life by the horns and take every day and every opportunity as a blessing. I have learnt from her, and my own journey, to live life to the fullest and to never pass up an opportunity. I cherish every day I get and always see the best in things and people.

I have learnt so much about myself going through what I have at such a young age. I am a strong, powerful woman and getting through those dark days has made me even more strong and powerful. My diagnosis completely changed my outlook on life, and I am eternally grateful to be living, working and loving everyday. During my treatment I wanted to survive, not for myself, but for my daughter and my husband. I used to put others first, but now I know how important it is to put yourself first - if you are not healthy and happy, how can you care for others? My advice to you all is to get to know your body. Know what is right and what isn’t. Cancer does not discriminate and knowing your body and being aware of changes might just save your life one day.