Sam's Story - "I didn't have a regular self-check routine. I thought I was invincible"

12 Sep 2023

At the end of 2022, after moving from Sydney to Melbourne, 33-year-old Sam noticed an unusual discomfort in her breast – her nipple appeared to be sticking to her bra. Sam's discomfort persisted, and she dismissed it initially as friction from her sports bra during workouts, escalating into a raw and sore sensation. By February 2023, she discovered an unfamiliar lump on the right side of her breast.

With a family history of breast cancer, Sam's concern prompted her to act quickly. She sought medical attention and underwent an ultrasound after her GP recognised the potential risk.

“At first, I asked how much the ultrasound would cost and then had to look at my calendar and work schedule to see when I could fit the appointment in – which happened to be three weeks later. After I told Mum, she suggested I get it checked sooner than that, so I moved the appointment forward a week.”

“Once I got to the appointment, I knew that when I was in the ultrasound longer than fifteen or twenty minutes, and there were many moments of long silence from the technicians, something definitely wasn’t right.”

“Another doctor was brought in for a second opinion, which led to an immediate contrast mammogram and a biopsy. I thought the mammogram would be the worst part. I didn’t even give the biopsy a second thought. They biopsied my breast and the lymph nodes in my underarm and needed three samples from each area, but I was in so much pain they couldn’t get all of them from my underarm.”

The biopsy results showed that Sam had HER2+ breast cancer. This diagnosis set the stage for a gruelling experience – chemotherapy, mastectomy, and potentially radiation. Her cancer was Grade 3 HER2+, having spread to three lymph nodes. Though her biopsy indicated Stage 2, surgery would confirm her exact staging later.

Sam faced a whirlwind of medical consultations and scans while exploring fertility preservation options. “After being referred to a breast surgeon and having blood tests and an ECG, I was referred to an oncologist. From that point, everything was go, go, go!”

When asked about her treatment plan, Sam said, “They gave me the option to take chemotherapy and immunotherapy together – TCHP chemotherapy with Herceptin and Perjeta, which are HER2+ targeted immunotherapies.”

“PBS doesn’t cover Perjeta, so it was an additional $6,000. But knowing that it would decrease the amount of chemotherapy I needed – which would now be eighteen weeks of chemo on a three-week cycle – I said yes and went ahead with it.”

At the time of the interview, Sam was still waiting to undergo surgery.

“I also opted to have the double mastectomy – I don’t want to continue to wonder, and I never want to go through this again if I can avoid it. They gave me the option to have the DIEP flap or implants. I’ve opted to have the implants. I thought, why add stomach surgery, another scar and a longer recovery when I don't need to.”

When asked about her relationship with her body during this experience, Sam said, “I was really worried about looking like a cancer patient. When told I would lose my hair, that was tough for me. There’s been weight loss and gain. My skin is pale, eyes are sunken – it’s really confronting looking in the mirror.”

“I’m yet to have surgery, so I’m nervous about what that will do to my self-image. I’m going from having these natural breasts my whole life to implants, which I never considered would happen. I’m not looking forward to that part, but hopefully, after recovery, I can look at myself and be happy with what’s there.”

When asked about a regular self-breast check before diagnosis, Sam mentioned,

“I didn’t have a regular self-check routine. I thought I was invincible. I was exercising five or six days a week, leading a pretty healthy, active lifestyle, and I’m young, so I didn’t think it would happen to me. But now I know cancer doesn’t discriminate. And although I have a family history with my aunty’s diagnosis eighteen years ago, it hasn’t been in my awareness since I was young, so I didn’t think about it.”

Sam mentioned that she found unwavering support from her family, friends, and colleagues during her experience. “I’m close with my two female leaders at work and never have to hide any appointments from them. After my diagnosis, I called them to let them know what was happening, and we all cried together. I can imagine that conversation would be quite difficult if you don’t have a good relationship with your boss or people around you.”

When asked about the advice she would like to leave for anyone going through breast cancer, Sam said:

“Go and see the GP as soon as you feel something’s wrong. I know there are questions about the cost of things, and there’s less bulk billing around now, but in the grand scheme of things, it actually doesn’t matter. Your health is so important. The lesson for me was if you think something feels wrong, chances are, there probably is. Your gut will always be right.”

“It’s your own experience, so you can try to take the advice from everyone else, but just remember that everyone’s journey is different, so don’t get too caught up in the details of everyone else’s story.”

Discover Empowering Resources: Are you facing a breast cancer diagnosis or want to support a loved one? Explore Pink Hope's breast cancer support resources for more guidance.

Self-Breast Check Automated Reminder: To make self-breast checks part of your regular self-care routine, check out Pink Hope’s automated reminder tool here.

This content is brought to you in partnership with Novartis and developed independently by the team at Pink Hope.