Francesca Rudkin and Louise Ayrey have been friends for 13 years, and have gone through all the trials and tribulations that come with getting older and raising kids.
Yet the biggest challenge they’ve had to share came in 2016, when Ayrey was diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer, kickstarting seven months of treatment that included chemotherapy, radiation and a mastectomy.
“I’ve described it as a massive interruption,” Ayrey said on her NZ Herald podcast with Rudkin, The Little Things. “It’s like there’s pre-breast cancer and post-breast cancer in my life. So between diagnosis, which is a hell of a shock, and treatment, me and my loved ones went into flight, fight, and freeze all at the same time.
“You have to somehow be a patient patient while clinical information is collected and assessed, and it’s just a bit of a sh*t time to put it mildly.”
The mother of three had experienced cancer in her life before - her mother died aged 44 on Ayrey’s 13th birthday from bowel cancer, while her sister-in-law died from breast cancer at 41.
“So we struggled with my diagnosis of, ‘God damn, it’s happened again’, but also how this is not gonna end well. I don’t know if the kids felt that way, certainly, that was my greatest fear right from the outset and probably the most difficult one for the professionals who were trying to treat me to deal with.
“I remember going to treatment and telling the nurse to tell me some good stories, cause I needed to hear some positive stories,” Ayrey said.
As one of Ayrey’s closest friends, Rudkin said it was “pretty upsetting” to go through, wanting to support her friend through this but aware of the family history and the stress that came from the diagnosis.
“It seems very easy to say to somebody, you gotta think positively, it’ll be fine, because it might not be, and you knew that. And I’m relentlessly positive, but I did feel that I had to let you feel your fear, express your fear, because I also thought that you would get to a point where you would then go, ‘okay, Louise, I can’t carry on like this, so I’m gonna have to pull myself up’. Obviously you knew you were loved and we were there to do anything for you, but we can’t do the one thing we really wanna do, which is click our fingers and make cancer go away.”
While Ayrey is clear that everyone’s experience with cancer is different for them, their family and friends, it’s something many New Zealanders will face in their lifetime. Figures from the Cancer Control Agency suggest 25,000 people a year are diagnosed with some form of cancer.
Ayrey has been in remission for six years now, and Rudkin’s support during treatment and the immediate recovery has strengthened their friendship - but what do those going through cancer need to know to help stay calm during the trying time, and what can friends and loved ones do during that period to show their support?
Listen to the full podcast for more from Francesca and Louise on their experience, and to hear advice from Dr Juliet Ireland, a health psychologist from Auckland Psychology, on what to do when going through cancer.