A young woman faces breast cancer

Friday 20 April, 2007 by Maria

On hearing the diagnosis, my first reaction was shock. It was 18 months after I'd first noticed the lump. At that time, my GP had done a test with inconclusive results and said not to worry. I changed GPs 12 months after that. I told her about the lump just in passing and she said, "Let's investigate it." I was referred to a breast surgeon. I had inconclusive results from a mammogram, a needle biopsy and a core biopsy. Then I had a lumpectomy, which showed I had cancer.

After the shock, my initial feeling was an overwhelming sense of helplessness; I thought, ‘I'm going to die'. I couldn't believe it, I was too young ... Then I started to read the literature, and ask more questions of my medical team. I felt better, more in control, as I became more informed.

After the lumpectomy I had auxiliary lymph node surgery, which came back clear. Then chemotherapy, radiotherapy and tamoxifen, which I had to stop taking because it caused ovarian cysts.

The chemotherapy was in 4 doses over 2 months, once every 3 weeks. I coped quite well with the chemotherapy; I didn't have any infections or really bad adverse side effects. I had some nausea and I was tired, but I wasn't physically ill. I worked all the way through. I was lucky because I had flexibility in my hours at work, so for example I could come in at 10 o'clock if I needed to.

I lost my hair. I wore a wig to work, which was good: I was in sales at the time and I could continue to deal with clients without worrying about my hair, or having to explain why I didn't have any. At home, I took the wig off and just used scarves and hats. It was winter and cold!

I had 6 weeks of radiotherapy. It caused skin irritation, towards the end. I'm not sure if I felt more tired from the radiotherapy or not: I was feeling a bit over the whole thing by then! I found the daily radiotherapy especially hard emotionally because it meant I was reminded every day of the cancer. It was a daily reminder that I was sick, having to be surrounded by other people, often very ill, in the waiting room. With chemotherapy, when I wasn't at the hospital I didn't have to think about it.

It was about 2 years after treatment that I started to feel ‘normal' again. It's not until you start to feel normal that you realise how sick you've been feeling. I think it was due to both physical and psychological effects of the cancer and treatment. I was weaker, and seemed to get tired and sick more easily.

As a young woman with breast cancer, at that time there was not a lot of support.

The hardest feeling for me was the feeling of isolation; I was constantly reminded that breast cancer is an older women's disease. Every time I saw a new doctor they would mention that I was very young to get breast cancer, that it's more common in older women. It made me feel special in a way that I never wanted to feel special!

About half way through my chemotherapy, I found a support group especially for young women with breast cancer and that was a great help. I got the support, and have gone on to support other young women. In the 3 years since the treatment I've seen a big change in what's available for young women with breast cancer.

How did cancer affect your life?

It was a life-changing experience. I reassessed everything. I no longer have a sense of an eternal future and am much more aware of mortality - not just my own. I eventually left work and took a trip around Australia for 8 months.

I became involved in volunteer work, both as part of the support group and providing telephone support to newly diagnosed women. It is important to me that other young women who face a breast cancer diagnosis don't feel isolated. I also started to work part time: this life balance made more sense.

I have a more general appreciation of life and how precious time and people are.

What do you think that women with breast cancer most need to know?

I think that young women need to know that there is support and information available for them, and that they are not alone. Young women have issues such as fertility and coping with a young family that older women with breast cancer don't have. All women with breast cancer must have access to information so that they can make informed decisions. Also they need support, not just at diagnosis and through treatment, but ongoing as they need it.

We include these stories to give readers an insight into the experience of cancer. Each experience is unique. Different people react differently to the same treatments, and treatments can vary depending on a person's age, the stage of their cancer and other factors.

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Updated: 20 Apr, 2007