Vanessa was 55 years old when she was diagnosed with Invasive Ductal Carcinoma stage three breast cancer in March 2014. Here, she tells her story about being diagnosed with cancer, the challenges of survivorship, and accessing cancer support services.
“I discovered a lump in my left breast and I was extremely tired which was unusual. I went to my GP who sent me for a mammogram and ultrasound straightaway.”
Vanessa’s first operation involved a lumpectomy and removal of 7 lymph nodes. A second operation removed an additional 27 lymph nodes. Four months of chemotherapy and six weeks of radiation treatment followed.
For the Coffs Harbour resident, the diagnosis marked a family history of cancer after losing her sister to breast cancer and her mother to pneumonia as a result of pancreatic cancer surgery complications.
“My older sister (by 18 months) was diagnosed with breast cancer in her early forties. She had a lumpectomy and lymph nodes removed but just over six years later it returned in the same breast and she had a mastectomy. Two years later it returned in the remaining breast and she had another mastectomy. Sadly it had metastasized and was terminal. She survived for almost four years and died at age 56. My mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer when she was 83. Her prognosis was three to 12 months to live. In hospital while recovering from exploratory surgery she got an infection and died shortly after from pneumonia.”After her sister’s diagnosis Vanessa became involved with the Cancer Council as a volunteer for Daffodil Day and Pink Ribbon Day.
“I felt somehow by being involved with the Cancer Council I was making a difference for her and everyone with or touched by cancer. After my sister died I decided to join the Coffs Harbour Relay For Life Committee. 2015 marks my third year on the committee and I just love it. I have been very fortunate to take on several other volunteer roles with the Cancer Council, both as a community speaker and a community advocate.”
For Vanessa, life after cancer treatment has come with unexpected challenges and changes – physical, practical and emotional.
“My breast is a lot smaller than the other one with two scars, an inverted nipple (as a result of the surgery), is full of lumps and bumps and often painful but I feel I am fortunate to have my breast intact. I do suffer numbness, feelings of discomfort and pain in my arm where I had most of the lymph nodes removed. I am at risk of developing lymphedema, however so far I have been lucky and this has not happened. I am on hormone treatment for at least 5 years and although I have experienced some side effects and discomfort they have been manageable.”
Vanessa says the emotional impacts of cancer have been the most challenging.
“After you have completed all the treatments, on the surface it may appear that life is back to how it was. It isn’t for me because having cancer has changed me. It has been such an incredible, insightful and scary journey. I have read and listened to so many incredible stories about people’s cancer journey and met so many brave people. I don’t want to minimise all the horrible aspects which you may have to live with such as physical changes, side effects, ongoing monitoring and knowing it can come back, but I have changed for the better. I am a very supported, positive and resilient person, but I have experienced anxiety especially around fatigue and chemo brain which has affected my focus, concentration and memory. I am also about to return to work and I have a lot of anxiety and fear around that.”
Vanessa participated in Cancer Council NSW’s Living Well After Cancer program in September this year in Port Macquarie. The free face to face program is run by trained facilitators who have experienced cancer firsthand and aims to provide cancer survivors, carers, family, friends and work colleagues with practical information after completing cancer treatment.
“For me stories are a way of connecting with each other. I learnt practical skills and information from the presenters and participants and it is reassuring to know other people may be experiencing similar side effects, fears, anxieties and also gaining positives from their cancer journey.”
Vanessa says that cancer is scary but encourages people to access practical, emotional and financial services offered by cancer organisations.
“The Cancer Council were there when we were hit with the diagnosis, when we were scared and reeling from the shock, when we were bombarded with information on treatment options, and side effects. The 13 11 20 telephone line provided support, advice and information in a caring and professional manner at the start of my journey. My daughter and I accessed this service here in NSW while my other daughter was talking to them in Western Australia. Through the Cancer Council I was able to draw up my will free of charge, which was something I knew I had to do but had been putting off like a lot of people do when I was unaffected by cancer. Cancer treatments also involve a lot of additional costs; some known and others hidden. For me, it meant a lot less income and more costs so I was very grateful that I could access a one off payment from the Cancer Council to help me pay an unexpected bill. As a survivor, Cancer Council NSW continues to provide me with emotional and concrete support through their survivorship program.”
Sharing her story felt like a natural way for Vanessa to give back to the community.
For information on Cancer Council NSW’s Living Well After Cancer program, call 1300 200 558 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. For information and support call 13 11 20