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Sometimes I do shed a tear

-by Maryanne

As the Chemotherapy Clinical Educator in a Day Chemo unit at St John of God Berwick, I was setting up our monthly cancer education display for Breast Cancer Awareness Month in October 2019 when my whole world changed.

Caption: St John of God Breast Cancer Education Display, Nov 2019. The day my life changed. Cathy (Pastoral Care) Liz (our McGrath Breast Care Nurse).

I was planning an uneventful mammogram the next day for a small breast lump but ended up being diagnosed with grade 3 triple negative breast cancer. As a nurse for 45 years, 20 in Day Chemotherapy, I knew I had to act when I felt a small lump. I actually had three lumps, one behind the other. Thank goodness for mammograms and first world medicine.

They are the reason I am here to tell my story. I was completely blindsided by my diagnosis like every other breast cancer patient. I tried so hard to be brave. I know the stats, 90 per cent of patients are alive five years post diagnosis.

My beautiful GP rang and told my husband, Fergus. I cried when I told my kids and siblings, such a difficult conversation. I tried to be very brave when telling my Mum, who was 96 and whom I had cared for when she was diagnosed with breast cancer four years earlier. Thankfully my cancer didn't have any familial link.

Like every cancer patient, I entered the whirlwind of scans, diagnosis and treatment. Mine was dose dense chemotherapy, high dose chemo every two weeks for eight cycles, followed by a mastectomy and breast reconstruction surgery. Tough. So tough, even though I knew what my treatment plan involved.

I have educated so many patients about this type of treatment, but it still doesn’t truly prepare you for being a patient.

Luckily, my treatment started many months prior to the COVID outbreak and I was so very blessed that my chemo was given in my home unit. I had set this unit up several years before, and my gorgeous and incredible colleagues treated and cared for me.

Caption: Christmas Eve 2019. Kerri, Carey, Monika, Liz, Maryanne, Christine & Roz.

Not only was I fortunate in being given chemo by my friends in a world-class treatment centre but we came home from sessions to a home cooked dinner. We had lovely friends and random generous community people who helped manage this rocky road during treatment. Dinner is a gift, it shows that someone cares, someone wants to offer comfort. Always say “yes, thank you!”

In February, on my 62nd birthday, the median age for breast cancer diagnosis, I had a DIEP procedure at the wonderful Cabrini Malvern hospital. A DIEP procedure is a mastectomy, with the transplantation of abdominal tissue to create a new breast after the removal of the diseased breast. The eight-hour surgery, performed by an incredibly talented team of skilled breast and plastic surgeons, specialist anaesthetists, wonderful theatre, recovery nurses and specialist ward nurses, who treated me for the first critical 24 hours. This was on the brink of COVID. It all went really well and the surgery resulted in two breasts and a very flat stomach.

Two weeks post mastectomy, I decided to have an axillary clearance as my post-chemo clearance results left some area of doubt. My recovery was pretty uneventful. Drain tubes became my constant companion for the next few weeks.

But then I was able to concentrate on the new me. As an Oncology Educator, I was very aware of the importance of rehabilitation both physical and mental. I was enrolled in a chemo rehab program during my treatment at SJOG then a post-surgery breast cancer rehab program run through Cabrini Hospital. I also accessed the BCNA post mastectomy physio exercises that helped me maintain my full range of movements post-surgery. I have been a great advocate for exercise during and post treatment, there is so much research to support this concept that shows enormous recovery advantages. I felt that this gave me some control. This was my new job! My family, husband, siblings, beautiful grandchildren and friends needed me to be the best I could be. If I tried to remain strong, they reflected my strength.

I enrolled in the rehab program at Cabrini but unfortunately COVID-19 intervened and our sessions moved to Zoom. The program was so well organised and very well internet adapted, extensive and covered so many areas that impacted our lives.

The program introduced us to other patients. Gorgeous strong and really challenged women, I felt such an affinity with them, I really wanted to pursue a connection, have a coffee, and actually just have a hug from a kindred spirit. It covered so many topics, health, mental health, physical health, exercise and sexual health, diet and so many more important areas.

I thought I knew most of this but I found so much support from the candid discussions with my fellow patients. One of the most difficult aspects of a cancer diagnosis during COVID is the lack of physical contact. I was blessed to be accompanied by my precious daughter, Ally, to all my chemo treatments and it’s so very sad that this can no longer happen. Patients have to come in alone, unsupported by their love ones. Oncology nurses now have to offer not only incredible skills and care in a high-pressure environment but support their patients without family supports or even touch. Anyone who has experienced cancer care will attest to the importance of touch. A hug, a kiss, a gentle hand on your arm or a moment of close contact communicates an intimate understanding of the fear they may be experiencing.

I have now experienced 12 months of isolation. It’s so long. It’s relentless, it’s isolating, and sometimes I feel incredibly sad. My husband is a GP and when he comes home, he strips off in the laundry, washes his clothes, has a shower, and only then can give me a hug and kiss. He is my only social contact. It is a very long day at home.

As a very upbeat and positive person, I have found the last few months incredibly challenging even though I fully support the governments strategies because they will save lives, my life. Zoom has enabled me to remain in contact with my children and precious grandchildren, siblings, friends and colleagues. Sadly, not everyone has this tool. Like so many isolated people I have felt so challenged, yep, I have cried, for myself, for my isolation from my family, especially from my four gorgeous grandchildren. I plan little projects for them. Australia Post send the little parcels for me. It makes me feel like I am in touch. We Zoom, we FaceTime, and we simply ring, we blow kisses, we laugh and look forward to the best hugs you can imagine. It’s not perfect, and yes sometimes I do shed a tear but it will all pass. It will take time, but we are being kept safe so we can enjoy all the joys of life in the future. I also try to help my elderly neighbour who has no family. This gives me purpose and such a loving thanks and a smile when I deliver the latest delight from my kitchen.

Caption: Fergus & Ally (my husband and daughter), Helen (volunteer), Roz, Mardi, Liz, Lisa (NUM), Gladys, Esther (my Oncologist), Christine, Kerri and Monika.

One year on from my diagnosis, I am still here! We are stronger and more resilient than we know, and have the future to inspire our strength and can share our strength with our community. Remember to smile, a smile goes such a long way.

If you need support, please call BCNA's Helpline on 1800 500 258 or visit our Online Network at any time of the day or night. Sign up for our My Journey online tool, to receive personalised information relevant to your diagnosis.