In 2018, it’s estimated that 18,087 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer. It’s the most common cancer affecting women in our country and you’d be hard pressed to find someone in your circle of colleagues, friends or family that hasn’t been impacted by the disease in some way. But aside from the stats, the risk factors and the commons symptoms, how much do you really know about what it’s like to suffer from breast cancer, day-to-day for years at a time? We chatted to 28-year-old Sarah Furlong – who is towards the end of her nearly two year treatment process – to find out about her experience.
It all started with a lump.
When Sarah first noticed a slight change in her left breast and nipple before showering, she put it down to that-time-of-the-month changes.
“I whacked my bra off and I thought, oh felt a bit weird, then I felt the other side and it was just the same on the other side,” she told Women’s Health.
“It was sort of pulling my nipple in and at the bottom a little bit… I didn’t really think much of it that day, I just had my shower, then the next day I rang my mum and said, oh look this is what happened and me saying it out loud did make me emotional, I sort of realised the severity of what had happened.”
The 28-year-old booked into the GP to have the lump checked, they asked her how different it felt compared to her last breast check.
“I couldn’t tell them really because It wasn’t something on my radar I suppose.”
After an ultrasound and a biopsy on the lump and her inflamed lymph nodes, Sarah says she was a mess.
“I feel like I knew from the ultrasound, like i’m not a pessimistic person, but I kind of just had a feeling by the way they were kept going over my lymph nodes and by the way they kept trying to look at the lump, I felt like something was wrong.”
Shortly after, the doctor called Sarah and asked her to come in for another appointment the next day.
“We booked you in for this time, no questions asked, so straight away you know from that phone call, something obviously big is wrong,” Sarah says. “So then I went and I took my partner and my mum with me, and then they just look that’s what it has come back as, you’ve got breast cancer.”
By this stage, she'd already accepted that something wasn't right so she wasn't shocked.
The next step was to see a surgeon.
“The surgeon discussed with me whether to do surgery first or doing chemotherapy first. So then he made my appointment with my oncologist, I went and saw her because I wanted to discuss chemotherapy first and see what she thought. Like what do I risk if I do chemo first, what are the risks of surgery.”
Once the cancer was confirmed to be in her lymph nodes, Sarah says her immediate reaction was try to stop the disease in its tracks.
“I thought if I have surgery that’s six weeks at least of taking the lump out yes, and the lymph nodes, but the cells are still going to be in my body and pushed into my bloodstream. So it was a bit like ‘lets cover the rest of my body and then we can come back to the lump later’.”
Sarah and her partner successfully underwent IVF before she faced 16 sessions of two different kinds of chemotherapy.
“The first one was a three month load and I was one session a week every three weeks so four sessions all up, that one was really really strong, that’s the one that made me really sick and then after four rounds, they put me onto a second type of chemotherapy and that was every week for 12 weeks but only ended but having 11 because I ended up getting shingles.”
She endeavoured to not let the treatment process put her young life on hold.
“That was probably the hardest bit. My chemo was ok, I was sick but I still functioned, I still worked, I worked for my parents, just to keep some semblence of a normal life. I had some sad days no doubt, but I could work, I could function, I could do everything with side effects but I could still function normally I suppose.
After ending her chemo in May, she had a month to recover before having surgery. Earlier, her second surgeon sent her for an MRI to accurately determine the size of the lump.
“It came back saying I think 7.5 cm, which was majority of my breast. Before finding out I sort of decided that if it is as big as I thought it was I was going to have my whole breast off because then at least then I can have reconstruction as opposed to having a lump out.”
After chemo, another MRI couldn’t detect the lump but surgery found that .4 centimetres of it was still present as well as pre-cancerous cells. Sarah ultimately decided to have both breasts removed after genetic testing came back positive for the BRCA gene, which was determined to be carried down on her father’s side of the family.
“It’s sort of a hidden family history, because my grandad had prostate cancer.”
She is now starting 25 sessions of radiation therapy before having reconstructive surgery in around six months time.
"I’m planning for April next year. So for me that will be my finish day. Only the other day I thought, I don’t know if i'm going to be emotional or not I don’t know. But, yeah, like I said its just another step in the process I suppose."
Breast Cancer Trials is a group of world-leading breast cancer doctors and researchers based in Australia and New Zealand with a commitment to exploring and finding better treatments for people affected by breast cancer through clinical trials research.We are on a mission for people affected by breast cancer to live better, to live longer and to never die from breast cancer. And we support all leading breast cancer researchers and organisations around the world in this vital work. Go to www.breastcancertrials.org.au to find out more and ask your doctor.