Fight of their lives

By Amelia Wade

Seven women are diagnosed with breast cancer in New Zealand every day. Amelia Wade tells the stories of seven patients

Jean Hedges (pictured left) with daughter Cushla Williams.
Jean Hedges (pictured left) with daughter Cushla Williams.

Cushla Williams

Age when diagnosed: 34, 2010

Diagnosis: Stage 3B, almost Stage 4

Cushla Williams was showering three years ago when she felt a lump in her armpit that felt "like a frozen pea".

"I've always been aware of what's normal for my body, so I knew something was wrong."

After having it tested, the then 34-year-old was diagnosed with Grade 3B, on the cusp of Grade 4, a breast cancer that is seriously life-threatening. Though she had very minimal symptoms and the lump was small, it turned out she had a 12cm tumour.

Mrs Williams had a 40 per cent chance of developing a new cancer in the other breast and the mother of three, whose eldest was 7 at the time, said it was "an easy decision" to have both breasts removed.

"I'm a mother, I had to do everything I could to make sure I was still around for my children. I desperately didn't want my kids having to say when they were older, 'my mum died when I was young'."

Mrs Williams was given a 50/50 chance of surviving five years but after a year, Herceptin improved those odds and she's now three years down the track.

Jean Hedges

Age when diagnosed: 59, 2010

Diagnosed: DCIS - high grade pre-cancer cells

After Cushla Williams was diagnosed with life threatening breast cancer, her mother, Jean Hedges, postponed her regular mammogram so she could focus on her daughter.

She rebooked the appointment two weeks later while Mrs Williams was waiting for her surgery and unfortunately she, too, was diagnosed.

Mrs Hedges' disease was not as advanced as her daughter's because it was caught early, but it was the very last thing she needed.

"Looking back, I don't know how we got through that. It just seems impossible now, but we did and we're on the other side."

Mrs Hedges, from Waiuku, chose to have a mastectomy to greatly reduce the odds of the cancer returning and she and her daughter have both made it to their three year anniversary.

The now 62-year-old is still on anti-anxiety medication over her worries for her daughter. She said it has greatly helped her focus on what was really important.

Diana Milne

Diana Milne says she approaches life "one day at a time''.
Diana Milne says she approaches life "one day at a time''.

Age when diagnosed: 30, 2011

Diagnosis: Originally negative breast cancer, which was treated but is now terminal.

One day at a time - that's how Diana Milne is approaching her life with terminal breast cancer.

Two years ago, she noticed a lump and went for a mammogram. A couple of weeks later, she was told it was triple-negative breast cancer, a particularly aggressive form of the disease that often affects younger women.

The then-30-year-old underwent six months of chemotherapy, had a full mastectomy and reconstruction followed by chemotherapy. But this year she felt lumps in her neck and Mrs Milne said she knew what that meant.

She was diagnosed with terminal secondary breast cancer, with tumours in her lungs and bones. Doctors don't know how long she has left, but on average it's between 12 and 18 months.

The married Papatoetoe woman is continuing chemotherapy and is eating healthily to try stave off the cancer for as long as possible.

"I try not to be negative about it because I'm not a negative person.

"You just take it one day at a time."

Mrs Milne urged women, particularly young women, to check themselves, be aware of your body and go to the doctor if they notice any changes.

Lynn Smith

Lynn Smith's cancer reacted well to medication.
Lynn Smith's cancer reacted well to medication.

Age when diagnosed: 52, 2013

Diagnosis: Stage 3

Because Lynn Smith has a nursing background, she knew exactly what it meant when a ripple on her breast cast a shadow when she was cleaning her teeth one night at the start of the year.

A biopsy confirmed it was Stage 3 breast cancer - she said waiting for her diagnosis was one of the hardest things she'd done. It was established she also had the HER2 gene, a non-genetic mutation that promotes the growth of cancer cells.

"It felt like I'd fallen into a big black hole with nowhere to go and no way out."

But Mrs Smith's family rallied behind her - her daughter, Georgia, 24, has been gathering sponsors to do the Auckland Half Marathon in November and has so far raised more than $8350 for the NZ Breast Cancer Foundation.

Mrs Smith, a mother of three, said once she started a course of chemotherapy, she instantly felt better because from there on out "it could only get better".

Remarkably, after just one dose her lump started to shrink and her surgery was brought forward.

"I was driving to my [follow-up] appointment and I got a text. I wouldn't usually check it, but it was from my surgeon and it said that my results were completely zero. The results took longer to get back than usual and that's why, because they kept checking and checking them.

"When I walked into the clinic, my surgeon was smiling and all the nurses were smiling and I just burst into tears."

Miffy Jones

Miffy Jones, here with children Guinevere and Gwyllym, lost her battle with breast cancer last year.
Miffy Jones, here with children Guinevere and Gwyllym, lost her battle with breast cancer last year.

Age when diagnosed: 40, 2010

Diagnosis: triple-negative breast cancer, which spread to her lungs and became terminal a year later. She passed away on September 14, 2012.

On the first anniversary of her death, Miffy Jones' husband, Paul Leslie, and their two children visited their mother's grave and shared stories about what made her special.

The couple were always honest about Ms Jones' diagnosis with Gwyllym, now aged 11, and Guinevere, 6, and their father thinks that's why they've been coping "surprisingly well".

Mr Leslie didn't know exactly what alerted his wife to the fact that something was wrong but in November 2010, just before her 41st birthday, she was diagnosed with triple-negative cancer. She started chemotherapy and radiation and had a double mastectomy, but the disease spread and a year later she was told it was terminal.

"We told them, 'Mummy's got breast cancer and she may pass away but we're doing everything to prevent that'. But when we were told it was terminal, changing that word from 'may' to 'is going to pass away', that was a tough night. The whole ball game changed," Mr Leslie told the Weekend Herald.

Ms Jones died at home last September, surrounded by those she cared about the most.

Mr Leslie, of Kaukapakapa, said his spiritual beliefs had helped get him through. "I believe that our souls will always live on and and knowing that it's just the physical body that we leave behind, that's helped me."

Ruth Scrimgeour

Ruth Scrimgeour with two of her granddaughters, was diagnosed in 1947.
Ruth Scrimgeour with two of her granddaughters, was diagnosed in 1947.

Age when diagnosed: 35, 1947

Diagnosis: stage unknown

About to turn 101 next week, Ruth Scrimgeour is believed to be New Zealand's longest-living breast cancer survivor.

After feeling a lump one day in 1947, she went to the doctor and it was soon established to be breast cancer. Mrs Scrimgeour's daughter, Margaret Bisdee, from Otaki, said back in those days there was only one option - to have the breast removed. It was one of the first times that procedure was carried out at Hutt Hospital.

Mrs Bisdee, 69, was 3 when it happened and one of her first memories is of seeing her mother's massive scar as she got dressed.

"She says to me, 'You wouldn't believe what I used to stuff down there'."

But after the operation, Mrs Scrimgeour found it difficult to come to terms with her new body and went through a period of depression. However, when she became pregnant with her fifth child, Mrs Bisdee said her mother "just pulled herself together and got on with it".

She's since lived a full life without any more cancer and has more great-great grandchildren than Mrs Bisdee could remember. Next Wednesday, Mrs Scrimgeour will celebrate her 101st birthday.

Emerald Reid

Emerald Reid, who has the BRCA1 gene mutation.
Emerald Reid, who has the BRCA1 gene mutation.

Age when diagnosed: 29, 2012

Diagnosis: Triple-negative breast cancer and was later found to have the BRCA1 gene.

After being diagnosed with breast cancer, Emerald Reid didn't want to look at her chest anymore.

From the moment her doctors confirmed her suspicions after she found a lump in November, having had a dream in which her great-grandmother told her to check her breast, she wanted a double mastectomy.

But because she was still so young - just 29 - she was advised otherwise and started a course of chemo.

It wasn't until tests confirmed at the start of the year she had the inherited BRCA1 gene that raised the chances of the disease developing to 85 per cent, that her treatment plan changed to include the removal of both breasts.

"I just didn't want them anymore, they were tainted. I just wanted them gone."

The skin on her chest has been slowly stretched 100mm at a time and she hopes to be ready for her reconstruction at the end of the month.

Support groups

For younger women:

• Shocking Pink, shockingpink.org.nz

• Breast Cancer Support (Auckland), 0800 273 22

All women:

• Breast Cancer Support Inc, 0800 273 222 or breastcancersupport.co.nz

• Breast Cancer Network, (09) 636 7040 or bcn.org.nz

• Maori and Pacific Support Services, sweetlouise.co.nz

• The Gift of Knowledge - Hereditary Breast Cancer, giftofknowledge.co.nz

- NZ Herald

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