Imagine trying every possible option to cure your stage-four cancer but nothing has worked. This is the predicament one Tauranga mum is in. Now she has decided to take more radical action. Jean Bell reports.
"There is no hope for me here ... my body is falling apart on a daily basis."
These are the desperate words of a Tauranga mother with terminal metastatic breast cancer who is flying to Mexico to undergo an alternative treatment in the hope it will give her more time.
Matua resident Erin McDonnell, 37, was diagnosed in 2018. After going through chemotherapy, radiotherapy and a mastectomy, her incurable cancer tragically returned this year.
On Monday, she will fly with her sister to a Hope4Cancer inpatient centre in Tijuana, Mexico for three weeks of treatment.
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The trip will cost about $100,000, of which $90,000 is for the treatment. So far, more than $34,000 has been donated to her Gofundme page.
She has temporarily stopped any treatment ahead of her trip after she severely reacted to tableted chemotherapy this month.
"I went through all the treatments and hardcore chemo but nothing worked," McDonnell said.
According to the Hope4Cancer website, the centre is "a recognised world leader in holistic and integrative oncology" that utilises "innovative, non-toxic treatments such as Sono-Photo Dynamic Therapy, Sunivera Immunotherapy, and Photodynamic Therapy Plus".
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McDonnell acknowledges the outcome of the trip, of which her oncologist is aware, is unpredictable but she sees no alternative.
Doctors have given her between 12 months to a few years to live.
"But what are a few years? It's pretty horrific when I think of the girls."
Rotorua-raised McDonnell moved back to the Bay of Plenty from Australia with her now-husband, Todd, and their two girls Sage, 10, and Ruby, 3, in October 2017.
Soon after, she discovered a small lump in her right breast. McDonnell visited a doctor and got a mammogram, an ultrasound and a biopsy.
"They called me up on the phone at work and said, 'you've got breast cancer,'" she said. "I had a meltdown and called my husband to ask him to come and pick me up.
"It took me a few days to be able to say the words 'I have breast cancer' out loud. It was so foreign having those words coming out of my mouth."
The couple were not married at that point and planned to wed in Fiji in June 2018.
"I thought I'd just get my breast off and happy days and I'd get on with my life. That wasn't the case at all."
On January 30, she was told she would do six to nine months of chemotherapy followed by radiotherapy.
The Fiji wedding plans were crushed. McDonnell was heartbroken.
"I was having a little cry about having to cancel the wedding, and [my partner and I] both just looked at each other and said, '**** it, let's get married next weekend,'" she said.
"We were like little kids."
The couple were wed on Waitangi weekend.
Less than a week later she had a mastectomy before starting chemotherapy in March.
She continued to work part-time as the family's sole income earner. She had chemo on Thursdays, then spent Friday to Sunday recovering. She either took Monday off or worked from home.
She also followed a keto diet and took natural liver and gut health supplements.
On August 2, she stopped chemotherapy. In September, she had radiotherapy and began taking Tamoxifen, a drug that blocking oestrogen receptors.
It seemed the battle had been won but in August this year, she found another lump in her lower abdomen.
In September, her worst fear was confirmed: the cancer had also spread to her lungs, lymph nodes, and kidney.
"I was an absolute mess. I remember asking [my oncologist] if I was going to die."
She found out about the Hope4Cancer treatment centre through a podcast and a friend, before connecting with people through Instagram who said they had success with the treatment.
Her jaw dropped when she saw the clinic's cost and said she will have to borrow money to get there.
"My first thought was, 'oh my God. I can't spend that money'. But my second thought was, 'It's just money and it can be made back - what are my other options?'"
She said she was going in with her "eyes wide open" about the fact the treatment was not conventional. She intended to try intravenous chemotherapy when she returned to New Zealand.
She said she would be satisfied if the Hope4Cancer treatment gave her a better quality of life or extended her life.
"I don't know whether it's going to make me cancer-free, but I know that what I put into my body will be natural stuff that will help build my body up, rather than making me sick."
A Cancer Society spokesperson said a number of therapies and healing practices were being used to complement medical treatments both in New Zealand and overseas.
Patients were recommended to discuss any additional treatments with the patient's medical team to discuss the benefits, medicine interactions and any safety concerns.