During the month of October we will be featuring the stories of Australian women who have been diagnosed with the HER2-positive form of breast cancer, a particularly aggressive and fast-growing form of the disease affecting 15-30 per cent of patients. The chances of the disease reoccurring is higher among women with HER2-positive breast cancer, but as you will see over the coming weeks, there is reason for hope.
In December 2008, Cathryne Pearce (pictured), finished 12 months of treatment for early stage breast cancer. Today she continues to work as an occupational therapist and has taken up several new activities that she wouldn’t have considered before her diagnosis.
“I was astonished. I was only 42 and I had always been fit and healthy,” says Cathryne. “I didn’t smoke and there wasn’t a family history of breast cancer. I had been vigilant with regular breast examinations for a number of years but, deep down, I never expected to find a lump and then to be told it was cancer.”
Cathryne’s breast cancer journey began in September 2007 when she found a lump the size of a grain of rice under her armpit during a self examination. It would have been easy enough to ignore because within a matter of days it had disappeared. Fortunately, her instincts led Cathryne to consult a doctor that same week. While her doctor was unable to detect any sign of a lump, the results of a mammogram, ultrasound and biopsy confirmed the presence of several cancerous tumours in the breast and the lymph nodes.
Speaking from her home in Nowra, NSW, Cathryne told Australian Women Online, “By the time I had the doctor’s appointment I felt a bit silly because the lump had disappeared. But I’m glad I still followed up on it.”
Her tumours were classified as HER2-positive, a particularly aggressive and fast-forming type of breast cancer that demands special and immediate attention. Remarkably, Cathryne had been given a routine mammogram just sixteen months before and that scan was clear.
“I was told the reason why this scan was clear is because the breast tissue is quite dense and they don’t always pick things up. When you are younger, your breasts are very dense and it’s hard to feel anything, so I was lucky,” said Cathryne.
Shortly after the diagnosis, Cathryne had one of her breasts removed. “It was an agonising decision but I felt it was an important step in my fight against the disease.”
After the surgery, Cathryne started driving two-hour round trips to Wollongong every three weeks to receive targeted therapy for her particular type of breast cancer, along with chemotherapy.
“My husband and three beautiful children were very supportive throughout the whole experience, and I couldn’t have done it without them,” said Cathryne. “During the course of treatment, we all had to make sacrifices. I missed my son’s presentation evening at school last year, for example, and my husband and I had to postpone our twentieth wedding anniversary. But for the most part, we were all grateful that I was able to live a relatively normal life.”
Cathryne had always enjoyed being fit and active and this became even more important for her during the treatment because she wanted to maintain her strength for the months ahead. “I even became quite adventurous, taking up motorbike riding and surfing and competing in the 2008 City to Surf!”
Cathryne now works as an occupational therapist for the Department of Veteran Affairs visiting veterans in their own homes.
“I work from home and I set my own hours. I loved what I was doing before but not as much as the job I have now. The job I had before paid a lot more but your priorities do change after you experience this type of life changing event,” she said.
“I’ve always loved life and enjoyed life, but I appreciate the smaller things a lot more and value family time a lot more. I have two sons aged 17 and 15. I also have a 12 year old daughter and I can now be home for her after school.”
“My daughter was ten when I had a breast removed. She looked at me and said: Mum, I’d love you if you had two boobs. I’d love you if you have one boob. I’d love you even if you had no boobs.”
Cathryne is currently on the waiting list for reconstructive breast surgery. “Since the cancer I’ve learned to surf and although I’ve got a swimming prosthesis, it’s not the same. The surgery will give me the shape – it’s going to be great!”
There are many different types of breast cancer, which grow at different rates, and respond differently to treatments. If you are diagnosed with breast cancer, Cathryne Pearce’s advice is to find out as much as you can about your particular type as soon as possible.
“My husband and I started to gather information on HER2-positive breast cancer. We felt the only way we could make good treatment decisions – decisions that could potentially give me the best chance of survival – was by being informed.”
“Be vigilant throughout the course of your breast cancer journey and never be afraid to accept the support your family and friends have to offer you.”
MORE ARTICLE IN OUR SERIES ON ‘SURVIVING BREAST CANCER’:
- Donna Rullo is 50 years old and lives on a 120-acre fruit farm in Swan Hill, Victoria. She was diagnosed with HER2-positive breast cancer in March 2001 at the age of 42 and after undergoing 12 months of treatment, has been in remission for eight years. Click Here to read Donna’s Story
- Lisa Jansz, a 43-year-old mother of two from The Gap in Brisbane, was diagnosed with early breast cancer in June 2007 and again, in January 2008. Having assisted with thousands of breast cancer surgeries during her career as a theatre nurse, has a unique perspective on living with breast cancer. Click Here to read Lisa’s Story
- Kay Leicht, a 53-year-old mother of three from Bexley, New South Wales, who is celebrating her tenth year of survival from breast cancer. At one stage Kay worried that she wouldn’t live to see her children grow up, but then a life saving new therapy gave her a future. Click Here to read Kay’s Story