The Shadow of Cancer

Today marks 1 year since my mums last Chemo treatment. In June 2017 my mum was diagnosed with Breast Cancer. She was lucky, it was very aggressive, but she caught it early and it had not spread. She had a mastectomy and then what they term ‘mop up Chemo’. The Chemo wasn’t treating a mass or cancer as such but making sure there weren’t left over cells in her body. She’s had regular check-ups and is what they term ‘cancer free’. She’ll be on medication for the next 10 years or so and have regular monitoring to help ensure it stays that way. When her first check up came back ‘cancer free’, we had a family photo shoot with pink balloons to celebrate this amazing gift of life. There was so much joy and a weight lifted knowing she was well again after a difficult battle. But a year on, it feels even more significant.

I feel like my family has always lived in the shadow of cancer. My Nan was diagnosed with breast cancer before I was born. She’d fight it, they’d tell her she was OK and then months later it was back, and she’d be fighting again. She passed away a week before my third birthday. Despite only having one real memory of her, one I can be sure wasn’t filled in with other people’s stories or what I saw in photographs anyway, she has always had such a massive presence in my life. She was kept alive by my Pa, my mum and her 3 siblings. I have felt her love for me in such a real and profound way my whole life and for that I am so grateful, but I do get mad sometimes that such an important person has missed most of my life. My Pa died a few years ago of lung cancer, he’d been a smoker since he was a teenager before quitting in his 60s, but 20 years later it caught up with him. While that was a horrible experience I wouldn’t wish on anyone and I wish Pa was still with me every single day it doesn’t have the same far reaching impacts as my Nan’s cancer.

My Nan was one of 4 children. 3 of the 4 have had breast or prostate cancer. 2 of the 4 have succumbed to its evils and are no longer with us. My mum and my uncle, her only sibling, have both had breast or prostate cancer. In my direct line on my mum’s side of the family, 5 out of 6 people have had breast or prostate cancer. In doing a family mapping exercise with a genetic oncologist, 13 people in 3 generations (my great grandmothers, my grandmothers and my mums) have had cancer of some form.  My mum’s first cousins are all much younger than her so at this point in time we don’t yet know the impact on that generation beyond my mum and her brother- not that I want to say anyone else in our family will get cancer (I pray that no one I love ever receives that news again), but it gives a little context. There’s a lot of cancer, and particularly cancer related to hormones.

Mum’s personal cancer journey has opened a whole other dimension in terms of our family history and risk. Currently my mum is under a genetics clinic to determine if more should be done to prevent cancer- recurring in her but also starting in anyone of her family members including my sisters and I. The Genetic Oncologist has said that he believes the cancer is coming down through our maternal line. The Cancer Australia website says ‘Women who carry a fault in BRCA1 or BRCA2 have a high lifetime risk of breast cancer, estimated to be in the range of 30-60%, and a lifetime ovarian cancer risk of about 20%. They can benefit from measures for prevention and early detection of cancers. Men who carry a fault in BRCA1 or BRCA2 may be at some increased risk of prostate cancer and male breast cancer. A person with a cancer-predisposing gene fault has a 50% chance of passing on the faulty gene to any child (male or female)’. We are waiting for the DNA testing to come back. Those results will determine what treatment Mum then has. She will possibly need a hysterectomy with her ovaries removed, as that will reduce the hormones that trigger the cancer. Many people believe that to prevent breast cancer you should have your breasts removed, this apparently is a myth. All of Mum’s treating team, including a breast surgeon and oncologist, stated that you can still get secondary breast cancer without breasts, it just spreads to other parts of the body. The results of the genetic testing will also determine if I need to be tested, leading possibly to the same preventative treatment of having my own reproductive organs removed, preferably when I turn 40. It’s incredibly daunting, I’m in my mid-30s, particularly as I haven’t had children yet and still plan to. There’s this conflicting thought that for me to be around to see my children grow I might need to remove the very thing that will give me those children. Luckily for me, I have a faith in God that means I believe that he has my life in hand, and I don’t have to be worried about making the choice between having babies or preventing cancer- it doesn’t keep me up a night. But still it would be unwise to be ill informed, to go through life ignoring what’s on front of me- that’s how people have worse outcomes. How many people die from cancer because they were so scared of having cancer that they never got checked out? I don’t want to be afraid of cancer, I want to be prepared, I want to fight it- even if I never get it! Cancer has taken and affected too many of the people I love already, and I want to do whatever I can to stop it’s devastation- for myself and others.

What Can you do?
Know your risk!
Don’t stick your head in the sand; be armed, be informed, be smart! For me and my family at this stage of our journey knowing our risk means full on genetic testing. For most people though it might mean understanding what’s in your family history, knowing what other lifestyle factors you have and talking to your doctor. Having a check-up and understanding your own health is always a good idea.

You can do this simple online test which will help to give you some understanding of your risk factors. https://pinkhope.org.au/know-your-risk/ (This is specifically for breast and ovarian cancers)

Live Healthy
Research suggests that a healthy diet (that maintains a healthy weight), exercise, low alcohol consumption and not smoking all reduce your risk for cancers- all cancers including breast. Yes, alcohol affects your boobs! The Drink Aware UK website says, ‘Globally, one in five of all alcohol-related deaths are due to cancer yet too few people make the connection between alcohol and cancer. Breast cancer is the most common cancer among women so it’s vitally important to understand the role alcohol can play in its development. While drinking alcohol doesn’t mean you’ll automatically get cancer there is good evidence to suggest: Risks of alcohol-related cancers (mainly breast cancer) increase from around one alcoholic drink a day. The more you drink over a lifetime the higher your risk of developing breast cancer becomes.’ Who knew? Well you do now!  So, it’s a good idea to do some research or speak with your doctor about your lifestyle to determine if there are changes you should be making. These 4 lifestyle choices are a pretty good start for most aspects of our health.

Check Yourself
For women this means doing a breast self-check- EVERY MONTH! I used to have an ap where a hot shirtless guy would remind me once a month. Whatever you need to do to remember do it! For women over 40 this means getting a mammogram. For women this also means getting your dreaded pap smear. For people over a certain age, for goodness sake put your poo in the jar they send you in the mail and send it back to them for testing- it’s free, why wouldn’t you? For men that means getting your prostate checked. Better to go through an uncomfortable experience of a test than pay a greater price. My mum is only cancer free because she caught her cancer early and it had not spread- there was no lump, they found it on a mammogram. And even then, they thought it was something else and ‘nothing to worry about’ but did a biopsy ‘just in case’. It was cancer, it was early, and it was treatable. It was so aggressive however that had she waited it probably wouldn’t have been.  So Check-Yourself, Get Tested, DO IT!

Invest
I know, the whole world wants your money these days. There are so many amazing charities out there, I wish I could support them all. But most people have been impacted by cancer in some way. There’s a good chance if you invest now that you might be investing in your own cure (or your mums, cousins, sisters, Nan’s, child’s). I saw just the other day scientists have developed a new treatment so that patients like my mum don’t need ‘mop up chemo’ just in case there are random cells left in the body. This would mean months of my mum’s life back where she wasn’t sick or in pain from the Chemo. It’s worth the investment. Some of the Cancer Charities that I personally invest in are:
Love Your Sister-  https://loveyoursister.ecwid.com/
Peter MacCallum Cancer Foundation (for Research) – https://foundation.petermac.org/
McGrath Foundation (they were amazing through Mum’s treatment)- www.mcgrathfoundation.com.au
Cancer Council Vic (I always run Pink events such as a Girls Night In or a Pink Morning tea at work)- www.cancervic.org.au
Breast Cancer Research Foundation- www.bcrf.org

I also always buy a Beanie from Carrie- www.carriesbeanies4braincancer.com
And have bought Beanies from https://loveyourmelon.com/ Which is a similar premise to Carries Beanies based in the USA supporting children’s cancers.

I hope that sharing some of my own family’s journey helps you, encourages you to be informed and maybe even saves a life- because you read this and thought ‘Yes, I need to be cancer smart’.

(featured photo: Mum on her last day of Chemo, putting her thumb print on the ‘Tree of Life’ for survivors.) 

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With My Nan

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