Those were the words that echoed in Nicole Gallen’s mind in 2018 when she was told she had breast cancer.
In 1997, when she was just 26 years old, Nicole was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.
“I started to feel unwell in the mornings. I was also getting a rash on my chest, but every time I went to the doctor to get my rash looked at, it disappeared,” she said.
“I just wasn’t feeling well.
“I had a CT scan done. I had no idea what I was about to get told and I wasn’t prepared. The radiologist said, ‘You’ve got Hodgkin’s Lymphoma’.”
Nicole started 43 days of radiotherapy, targeted from her chin down to her pelvis.
“I was sick most days. The bottom part of the back of my hair started to fall out and I lost the ability to taste, although that came back eventually. I just crumbled,” she said.
Joining a Cancer Council support group helped her navigate the experience.
During her radiotherapy, Nicole was warned she would be at a higher risk of breast cancer in the future.
“It’s always in the back of your mind. Even though I was only 26, I had to start having mammograms. There were a few times where lumps were removed, but they were benign,” she said.
A double mastectomy and chemotherapy
Then, in 2018, she felt a lump in her left breast.
“The radiologist who did the lump biopsy was the same one who diagnosed my Hodgkin’s lymphoma all those years ago,” Nicole said.
“The GP called me in and she didn’t even say anything, she just pointed to the words on my printed results, and I thought, ‘here I go again’.”
Nicole immediately decided to have a double mastectomy.
“There was no hesitation, I didn’t have a second thought about it. The other breast had to go as well,” she said.
It ended up being the best decision she could have made.
“After they removed both breasts, there was a cancer in my right breast as well, which they didn’t find until after the surgery, so I’m very glad I made that decision,” Nicole said.
Nicole decided not to have a reconstruction, but instead wear two prosthesis.
The next step was chemotherapy – a treatment that had always terrified Nicole.
“The thought of chemotherapy has always petrified me” Nicole said.
“I just remember waiting to feel nauseas after each treatment, but nothing happened – I came home and just did the things I would normally do. I was determined not to dwell on anything”
“All my life I’ve feared this thing, and although I still wouldn’t want to go through it again, it was actually okay. After having experienced both radiotherapy and chemo, I can honestly say that the chemotherapy was so much easier for me.”
Nicole said the radiotherapy she’d had 20 years ago was “much, much worse” than the chemotherapy.
“Research is making a big difference for people going through cancer. I know that’s not everyone’s experience, but a lot of people are scared of chemotherapy, so I think it’s important to know that some people have an experience like mine,” she said.
“Losing my hair wasn’t a big deal for me whatsoever. I knew it was going to happen and it started to come out on day 17. There was piles of hair and I said to my husband Terry, ‘let’s just shave it off!’.”
“Terry was just amazing throughout the whole experience. I will never forget what he has done for me. As serious as this was, we dealt with this with humour and it honestly helped me emotionally.”
Nicole’s advice to others
“It’s been two years now. I’m on Tamoxifen and I alternate between seeing the surgeon and the oncologist for check-ups. I have joint issues basically bought on a lot quicker by the chemotherapy, but I am very lucky,” Nicole said.
“My advice to other people diagnosed with cancer is put yourself first – do whatever you need to do to get yourself through it. This could be laughing, crying, whatever. I found that keeping my sense of humour helped me from becoming overwhelmed.
“The other thing I learnt was to try and live in the moment. The first time around I kept a diary of everything, and I knew exactly how many days of treatment I had left. I was concentrating too much on that.
“This time, I put it out of my head and concentrated on the here and now and just took it one step at a time.”