Healthy & (hopefully) happy

Friday 4 October, 2013 My name is Kathleen. I am 81 years of age.

While watching TV a few months ago my husband and I saw an ad regarding the benefit of regular mammograms. He asked me when I'd last had one. I had been having regular mammograms for a number of years, but I told him that the last had been about five years ago. This was when I was advised that reminders would no longer be sent as the risk of cancer was diminished at my age. It was not thought to be so important (at least that's how I interpreted this arrangement).

At my husband's insistence I made an appointment to have a mammogram. Following this visit I received a letter advising that there had been an abnormality found. They would like me to attend a follow-up session of (about) 6 hours duration for further tests.

These took place and we spent 6 hours at the clinic (with a couple of short breaks into town for lunch and coffee) when further mammograms, examinations, an ultrasound and biopsies were carried out. During this time there were considerable waiting periods but all of the staff were very friendly and caring and willing to answer any questions that arose. A breast nurse was available at any time and she attended each session where the doctors and other staff kept us informed of any results they'd found during the various examinations. By the end of the session (6 hours) we knew I would be faced with an operation to remove a cancer lump, but were advised that it was (1) small, (2) had been found early, and was (3) treatable.

During the following week the breast nurse I'd seen at the clinic rang several times to ask how I was coping. I appreciated this contact, but had no problems except for lethargy.

A week later I was admitted early in the morning to hospital where I underwent further preliminary procedures (not sure now exactly what these were but they took a couple of hours I think) before then going on to another hospital for the operation. (My husband drove me there.) Admission was immediate and easy, and it was not long before I was taken to the operating theatre early in the afternoon. I don't remember anything about this part. I don't tolerate anaesthetics very well (vomiting, etc.) so the late afternoon and early evening (with visitors) is something of a blur. During the later evening staff were very attentive, and I was several times offered pain killers, which I declined as I had no pain.

My overnight stay was much as expected. A number of times I awoke expecting to see daylight, but this also indicates that I went to sleep a number of times. I had been advised to ask for painkillers if necessary, but they were not needed as I had no pain and little discomfort. The next morning the consultant doctor made a very brief visit after which I was discharged.

I saw the doctor the following week when I was given the good news that the operation had been successful and there were no signs of it having spread through the lymph nodes to other parts of my body. His staff then arranged visits to two other oncologists to determine what further treatment was required.

I saw a radiation oncologist. He spent considerable time examining me, checking results, and just talking about radiation treatment. By the time I left him I felt very comfortable that this treatment would be right for me. His staff organised my appointment for the planning session for radiotherapy at the clinic for the following week.

A few days later I had a one hour visit from a breast care nurse who provided a great deal more written information in the form of booklets and other information and who was also very caring. She arranged for me to be sent a special free bra (very soft) which arrived a few days later.

Next the medical oncologist examined me and answered any questions I had about chemotherapy. He then went into great detail showing my husband and I on a computer screen various statistics which explained how my results and my age contributed to certain factors, meaning that, without the need for further treatment from him, (chemotherapy), I had a good chance of living another ten years.

My planning session took place that same afternoon. I had previously been advised that it would last about 40 minutes. I was put through a number of procedures (scans etc.) with machines involving (among other things) tattooing my breast with markings which would later allow treatment to be accurately directed to a specific area. There was no pain or discomfort associated with this procedure. Again, staff were excellent.

Another appointment with my surgeon followed, with good results. Then my GP gave me referrals for blood tests and X-rays.

Following the planning session I was advised that I should expect to be notified soon when treatment was likely to begin: however, after having heard nothing for about a fortnight I eventually rang to enquire what was happening. A week later I rang again to be told that I had an appointment for treatment to begin in two day's time. (I had expected to receive notification by mail).

Finally treatment has begun!!!! (every week day for five weeks).

Upon arrival at the hospital for the first treatment, reception staff issued me with an appointment card detailing the time for daily appointments for the next five weeks. There had been no attempt made to make these for my convenience, which was a disappointment as I had previously been advised that this would be the case.

At each session the same routine is followed - show your appointment card to have the time checked for the following day (and occasionally changed). You are then directed to a waiting area until collected by a staff member and taken to the treatment area to change into your gown. Sometimes there is a delay, but waiting times are kept to a minimum. I must say that all staff involved have been wonderfully supportive and friendly, caring and considerate whilst also showing interest in any "special events" that have happened since my last visit.

After a short wait, you're called to the treatment room. Usually two radiologists and a student then work for about five minutes carefully positioning you on the bed by using the 'tattoos' previously mentioned. This position is critical so the radio waves are directed accurately. Staff then leave the room while the machine is activated to move around the patient and give the required treatment which, in my case, takes five minutes or so. The staff then return and you dress and leave the clinic.

Following the last treatment, I was seen by a senior nurse who, after an examination, advised me to make an appointment with the oncologist for 8 weeks time - which I did after arriving home that day.

By the end of my treatment period I felt I had made new friends and was especially touched when, as I was about to leave the building for the last time, I was met by the student who gave me a lovely card wishing me well.

During this whole period I have been so fortunate in that I have had no need for painkillers. Some burning around the area of the treatment has occurred but this has been relieved by the use of sorbolene and has now considerably reduced.

Having private health insurance through Medibank Private has meant that we are in the fortunate position that the only out-pocket-expenses for the whole procedure so far have been part of my visits to the surgeon and one of the hospitals ($200.00).

Through the literature provided, I understand there's assistance in the form of free transport available to those who require it. For those patients living some distance away and needing to attend the hospital each day, arrangements can be made to access this service. I am in the fortunate position that we live only about 20 minutes away from treatment so we did not need to make use of this service (but obviously could have done so if necessary).

I will require ongoing follow-up visits with my surgeon and and to radiation oncologist but, apart from those, I expect to live a healthy and (hopefully) happy number of years yet.

If you or someone you know has breast cancer and would like further information and support please call the Cancer Helpline on 13 11 20 and speak with an experienced cancer nurse.
Updated: 04 Oct, 2013