In a five-part series, the Herald investigates controversies in cancer testing and treatment and reports on the moving stories of people afflicted with cancer. In the first part of the series, Herald health reporter Martin Johnston turns his attention to breast cancer

Emma Crowley was in the shower, shaving her right armpit, when she made the alarming discovery that may have saved her life.

She was 24 and she felt that under her arm was a lump the size of a golfball.

"I thought, that's a bit odd; maybe it's an inflamed gland. I had been burning the candle at both ends and thought I was coming down with a cold.

"Luckily I took myself off to the doctor the next day. I was quite cavalier - maybe I need antibiotics. She was like, mmm, not sure." So began the storm of Ms Crowley's breast cancer, which scans and biopsies indicated had spread to the nearby lymph nodes.

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"The oncologist got me in on Labour Day because he had read the reports and I needed to be seen sooner rather than later," says 27-year-old Ms Crowley, an Auckland human resources executive, law student and the mother of a 7-year-old girl.

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Her initial treatment was mostly financed by health insurance, except for the drug Lapatinib, which her parents funded at a cost of nearly $10,000.

The multi-drug treatment was successful, leaving her with no residual cancer by the time of her full mastectomy and the removal of most of the associated lymph nodes.

Radiation therapy followed, along with the remainder of her 12-month course of Herceptin.

She suffered rashes and debilitating effects from some of the drug treatment, "but it did the job".

"I had early breast cancer that was treated for cure and that's what it did." On average, just two women a year aged less than 25 are diagnosed with breast cancer in New Zealand.

Ms Crowley had no symptoms other than the lump and no family history of the disease.
She says suffering a deadly disease forced her to focus on the present. "I think that it's given me a sense of reality and has put everything in perspective." She urges young women to have irregularities checked.

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"For my generation, who want to work hard and play hard, I don't think going to the doctor [partly because of] the sheer cost of going to a GP is high on people's agenda unless they are feeling really sick. Apart from thinking I might be coming down with a cold I didn't feel unwell at all. I could have not gone to the doctor and then weeks later the story might not have ended so happily."