A woman’s risk of developing breast cancer increases as she gets older, with 75 per cent of new cases developing in women over 50.
“It’s in the 40s and 50s that we start to see a steep increase in the incidence of the disease,” says Richard Kefford, Professor of Cancer Medicine at Macquarie University and National Breast Cancer Foundation director.
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“This coincides with huge responsibilities in their lives. It’s a peak period for carrying a large mortgage and for having a growing family, all usually still at home.
“Then, along comes this bombshell, always totally unexpected. It’s a massive shock for the person and their family, and an additional load on an already very busy situation.”
Professor Kefford’s encourages his patients to carry on as normal, to the best of their ability.
“Thumb your nose at it, and don’t let anyone put you in cotton wool,” he advises. “Don’t allow this to interfere with your responsibilities, your social life, your sporting activities. I find that psychological approach is the best way to get through the whole thing.
“It’s worth remembering,” he continues, “that the majority of breast cancer is cured. People tend to lose perspective on that. Modern treatment is superb; modern surgery is superb.”
Sue Collister, from Melbourne, was diagnosed in 2008 at the age of 47. Here’s her story.
I’m an educated person, but breast cancer didn’t occur to me. I’d noticed a change in my nipple, and I went to the doctor thinking it might have been a sign of menopause. He sent me for a mammogram, ultrasound and needle biopsy and wrote ‘urgent’ on the fax, but even then it didn’t quite click.
The first thing I did was ring my husband, and burst into tears. I said: “I need you.” I hadn’t even told him I was going to the doctor. It was a very busy time for me at work and at home. It was in the middle of my eldest son’s university exams, and my second son’s VCE exams. It all moved really quickly from there.
They showed me the cancer on the ultrasound. It was about an inch and a half long – and if you take it away from something that’s affecting you, it’s a fascinating thing. When they did the biopsy, that’s when it was confirmed. Two days later I had a lumpectomy where they took the nipple and three lymph nodes, and they all came back as cancerous. A couple of weeks later, I was advised to have a mastectomy to remove the breast and another seven lymph nodes – and thankfully those seven were free. After that I had 15 bouts of chemo and 30 bouts of radiation. It was a full-on nine months.
The biggest thing was that I tried to keep life as normal as possible – for myself and the children. I kept working the whole time. I’m a teacher and I also run a school boarding house. My employers were so supportive. They knew that keeping working was so important. I didn’t teach, but I did continue in my role as director of boarding. Chemo was on a Wednesday morning, so I’d take that day off. Then I’d manage to work most of Thursday and Friday. I found the chemo fatigue would hit me at about four o’clock on a Friday afternoon. I knew I had to be home by then, and basically I wouldn’t move from then until 9 o’clock Monday morning. And then I’d feel fine. I think I was lucky.
Two weeks after I finished all my treatment, I took a school group away for an 11-day camping trip, reenacting the Burke and Wills expedition. That was my reward! A lot of people thought it was unusual, but the only thing I couldn’t do was put up my tent. And I still can’t do that, because I don’t have strength in my right arm, from having the lymph nodes removed.
At the time of my diagnosis, I was still young – too young to have had mammograms. And I didn’t know anyone else in my peer group with breast cancer. But since then, that’s changed. My younger sister has had breast cancer, and one of my closest friends. It definitely made people more aware. They talk about the ‘Kylie effect’, and I know a lot of my friends went off and got tested after I was diagnosed.
I love being a part of the Mother’s Day Classic, and it’s a wonderful thing to share with my children. It’s the best mother’s day I ever had last year, and it’s going to be even better this year.
For me, breast cancer is something that’s in the past. I obviously have ongoing checks and I’m still on medication, but I have no concerns. If it does come back, well, we’ll face it again. I’m a firm believer that the glass has got to be half full.
The New Daily is a proud partner of the Mother’s Day Classic, a fun run and walk, which raises funds for breast cancer research. It will take place on May 10. Visit the website to register online before the event.