When Tricia Vermuyten, 44, found out she had breast cancer eleven years ago she reacted with the same shock and disbelief that is common to anyone finding out they have this terrible disease. “I remember sitting at home on the couch with my husband watching TV when I got the call,” she says. “It was my doctor telling me to prepare myself as he had some bad news.”
“He told me I had breast cancer. I had a grade 3 aggressive tumour about the size of a 10-cent piece. And I had to come and see him straight away.”
“It came as a complete shock. My first reaction was ‘How can I have cancer, that’s an old person’s disease? I’m young! I’m healthy, I don’t drink, I don’t smoke. That can’t be right.’” But of course it was right. And almost before she realised what was happening Trish was having the tumour removed, followed by six months of chemo and radiation that she described as “the worst six months of my life,” months she only got through thanks to the love and support of family and friends.
Devastatingly, Trish’s father was diagnosed with lung and brain cancer three years later, and shortly after her mum was diagnosed with breast cancer. Her father, sadly, passed away, but Trish and her mum are proud survivors.
And after she had her tumour removed, Trish thought, she’d beaten the cancer into submission.
Except she hadn’t.
Even worse news was to follow. The fact that Trish’s family had three diagnoses of breast cancer was starting to tell a worrying story. And sure enough, Trish was tested for the BRCA1 gene – and discovered she was positive. One of her sisters was too.
This meant that Trish had a 50 per cent chance of the cancer recurring, as well as a high chance of ovarian cancer.
So she had some very serious decisions to make, as did her sister. And the decision Trish made was to have a double mastectomy and reconstruction and have both her ovaries removed. “I decided that I wanted to take control of my life and my body and not give cancer any chance of coming back,” she says.
It was a very long process with multiple surgeries and lengthy rehabilitation and I had to come to terms with the fact that I’ll never have children but I know it was the right thing to do for me.”
At least, she says, she now has a “rocking set of boobs”!
It’s difficult to imagine that any good can come from cancer. But so many people who survive it find that something does. For Trish, it was the chance to meet people she thinks of as “cancer veterans” – men and women who have lived with a cancer diagnosis and survived for 10, 15 years, even 20 years. Their wisdom and strength gave her the courage to continue her own cancer journey, and meeting them inspired Trish to want to volunteer for the Cancer Council herself.
“I am glad that I can now call myself a cancer veteran, for this year I am 11 years all clear!” she says. “I hope to give back to other people affected by cancer, in appreciation for how much help was given to me.”
“All of this would be worth it, if I could inspire just one person to go get that check up that they keep putting off, or to quit smoking or simply motivate someone to start taking better care of themselves.”
That’s why she volunteers with the Cancer Council – speaking at events, fundraising and generally being a shoulder to lean on for anyone experiencing the same overwhelming range of emotions and physical toil that comes with a cancer diagnosis.
Nothing good comes from cancer. Except for people like Trish.
Volunteering can be for everyone
Whether you can offer a day per week or 1 day per year, volunteering provides an opportunity to meet new people, to share your experience and to develop new work and life skills.