Diagnosed with breast cancer when she was 37, Janette Gilbert undoubtedly faced numerous physical and emotional challenges. Through the experience, however, Gilbert’s resilience and support network ultimately allowed her to make empowering discoveries about herself, her relationships, and the community around her. Having undergone several treatment strategies, she is now cancer-free at 44.
The lump in Gilbert’s breast was noticed by her partner during some foreplay fondling. “It was one of those ‘Ah-ha!’ moments when you just know it’s serious. My partner’s mother had passed away from breast cancer about nine years earlier, and this happened very close to the anniversary of her passing. For me, it was a life-saving divine intervention.”
The lump was about the size and hardness of a frozen pea, and because it was so small, the breast surgeon had difficulties taking a biopsy. When the results came back positive for Stage 1 cancer, he was shocked. The surgeon asked Gilbert if his medical students could feel the lump to teach them to biopsy even the smallest lump. “I was breast tested by about 12 students! But it was a great lesson to hopefully assist others to be diagnosed early.”
Gilbert says that she knew through some kind of intuition that she had cancer before she received the news. She remembers talking to her partner a few days before the diagnosis to help prepare her for the possibility. However, when the actual words were delivered, they were caught up in a whirlwind of doctors and tests. Everything happened so fast that Gilbert didn’t have time to feel very much apart from shock.
Gilbert advises others to have a counselling session before chemotherapy “to gain some head-space to make a clear decision that will affect the rest of your life.” As well as a lumpectomy, chemotherapy and radiotherapy, and hormone therapy, Gilbert also tried different complementary therapies, such as Ignite Your Spirit energy healing. She also found meditation as a way to alleviate her anxiety and find a place of peace.
The biggest challenge for Gilbert during the treatment process was the lack of sensitivity around the issue of fertility as a lesbian. Despite being very supportive, when it came to the fertility question, Gilbert’s oncologist asked her, “So, you’re not planning on having children, are you?” At that point, Gilbert and her partner were a new couple of two years, had a pet and just bought a house together in St Peters twelve months before – and yes, they did want kids. “But we were in the shock of a cancer diagnosis and getting through that was the only thing on our minds… so freezing eggs and coming up with the money to do that was all too much for us to get our heads around.”
Gilbert stopped hormone treatment after three years to have her fertility tested. “My eggs were no good. So I then needed to face the sadness of not being able to have my own children.”
All of these events took a substantial emotional toll on Gilbert, and she experienced depression and anxiety in the years following treatment. It took about eighteen months after treatment before she reached out for help.
“I went on the mental health care plan which gives substantial Medicare rebates for psychologist sessions. I still do these things (Ignite Your Spirit, meditation, counselling) even seven years on – as prevention; physically, emotionally and mentally.”
She also started going to The C-Word, a cancer support group run by Cancer Council NSW for lesbians – which Gilbert now co-facilitates – and her partner could go with her. Of course, Gilbert’s partner played a large role in supporting her through the process. “I definitely over-relied on my partner for support, because she was there for me every step of the way, but it takes its toll. In retrospect, it would have been good to ask for and accept more help from more people. Friends are great, but they are equally keen for you to return to normal once treatment finishes.”
Together, Gilbert and her partner made changes to their exercise regimes. Her partner re-trained from an IT account manager to become a personal trainer in order to focus on fitness and help Gilbert and others reduce the risk of cancer. Moreover, Gilbert started participating in charity fun-runs, cycling, and the Pinkie triathlon, with her partner completing the 200km cycle for Life House. “Raising money for cancer and getting fit was a positive way that we could both face cancer.”
There was also an impact on sexual wellbeing. “Boobs weren’t fun anymore. We found the lump during foreplay so it just wasn’t simple to get our groove back. My partner was loving about my body so it wasn’t just about body image. The emotional scars were deeper. I think this is unique to lesbians with breast cancer, because if one partner can get it, there’s fear that the other could too. I remember after cancer, for a while we used to drink a lot before sex, just to feel light and carefree.”
“And who knows if lack of libido is hormone therapy-related or emotional, but that was a reality too. Rekindleis a great online resource that addresses sexual concerns people may experience after cancer treatment.”
For those who have recently found out that they have breast cancer, Gilbert offers this advice: “Breathe. Take your time deciding on treatments. Survival rates are great for breast cancer now, but make sure you are comfortable with the treatment regime. Be empowered – it’s your body. For me it was the combination of Western medicine and complementary therapies. Learn to ask for and receive help and love. That’s the real healing medicine.”
Cancer has allowed Gilbert to reflect upon what truly brings joy to her life. She has developed a deeper connection to her spirit, life, and love, finding this through meditation, nature, her relationships, being in the presence of her guru and helping others.
“There is beauty in cancer. It’s not all dark. Love, honesty and trust with my partner, friends and family grew deeper and deeper. And self-love is the best gift I’ve received from cancer. I can love myself, no matter what.”
Gilbert’s passions now are facilitating Living Wellness meditation groups for cancer survivors and their supporters, and volunteering with Cancer Council NSW as a Facilitator of the Living Well After Cancer program and a group leader of the new C Word Telephone Support Group.
“I thank cancer for awakening me to be more and do more.”
The facts on breast cancer
Every day in Australia, 42 women are told they have breast cancer and seven will lose their lives to the disease.
Breast cancer is the most common cancer affecting Australian women. Approximately one in eight women will be diagnosed in their lifetime.
A breast cancer diagnosis can be stressful for women and can affect a woman’s relationship with her partner. Women in same-sex relationships can have specific challenges when they or their partner are diagnosed with breast cancer. This may include anxiety discussing their personal situation with members of their medical team due to concerns that health professionals may be judgemental and not understand issues specific to them.
Women in same-sex relationships often discuss feeling frustrated by the emphasis placed on the impact of a breast cancer diagnosis on heterosexual couples, especially in relation to sexuality. In addition, some female partners report feeling vulnerable to a breast cancer diagnosis themselves, further increasing anxiety and distress.
Talking to someone in your healthcare team with whom you feel comfortable and who understands your personal situation can help you and your partner feel more supported. Other supports which can help you through a breast cancer experience are listed below.
The main risk factors for breast cancer are:
being a woman
having a strong family history of breast cancer
inheriting a faulty gene that increases your risk
What to look for:
Many women are diagnosed following a regular screening mammogram, and have no symptoms of breast cancer. Women aged 40 and above are eligible for free screening mammograms every two years through BreastScreen Australia.
For women who do have symptoms, “I felt a lump” is a common phrase. If you notice changes to your breast, it is important to see a doctor as soon as possible. Symptoms to watch for are:
a new lump in your breast or underarm (armpit)
thickening or swelling of part of your breast
irritation or dimpling of your breast skin
redness or flaky skin in your nipple area or your breast
pulling in of your nipple or pain in your nipple area
nipple discharge other than breast milk
any change in the size or the shape of your breast
C-Word Support Group is a support group for same sex attracted women diagnosed with any cancer, and their partners. The group provides a safe and confidential space for women to come together, share their experiences and gain support.
Contact Sally from Cancer Council NSW on (02) 9334 1846 or email@example.com
Rekindle is a private, personalised online resource that addresses sexual concerns for all adults affected by cancer. Cancer survivors, whether in a relationship or single, heterosexuals and homosexuals and their partners, are invited to join the Rekindle study. rekindleonline.org.au
DocList.com.au is a registry of doctors and mental health professionals recommended by lesbian and bisexual women.
Qlife is an initiative of the Department of Health’s Teleweb project, Qlife is a national counselling and referral service for people of diverse sex, genders and sexualities. Qlife also provides online chat. www.qlife.org.au or phone 1800 184 527 FREE
*This article originally appeared in the October 2015 edition of LOTL Magazine.