A 24-year-old Dunedin woman says she probably wouldn't be alive if she hadn't found a "tiny lump" in her armpit while washing off her fake tan.
Tash Mitchell is speaking out about surviving breast cancer in light of a new nationwide campaign called Change and Check, encouraging young women to keep an eye on their boobs.
Her story comes after a survey, conducted by Breast Cancer Foundation New Zealand (BCFNZ), found 1 in 6 Kiwi women under the age of 45 never check their breasts for changes. Close to 250 women responded to the survey.
It also revealed nearly 1 in 8 respondents under 45 have ignored lumps or other alarming symptoms, rather than getting them checked by a doctor.
About a year ago Mitchell was washing off fake tan when she felt a small lump under her armpit.
As a precaution, she made an appointment with her GP who told her there was a 99 per cent chance it was an exposed lymph node from a virus she had just recovered from.
"I had no family history of breast cancer, other than my grandmother on my dad's side, so they thought it was very unlikely to be cancer. They sent me home and told me not to worry, but come back in four weeks if it was still there," Mitchell said.
A month later, the lump had not gone so she went back and a referral was made to see a breast specialist.
An ultrasound and fine needle biopsy confirmed it was staged 2 triple positive breast cancer.
"I remember not crying about cancer but the fact I would lose my hair, miss Christmas which I love and have to cancel my wedding," she said.
The Fonterra sales manager planned to marry the love of her life Keanu Falconer in January but the wedding was postponed to February 2022 so Mitchell could focus on getting better.
"It was devastating to hear your life was more or less tipped upside down in a second. All of the unknowns were overwhelming."
She said the amount of cancer was about the size of a pinky nail but it was aggressive so they had to treat it quickly.
"It was enough to get the better of me if I did nothing about it and all my doctors kept saying I was so lucky to have found it," she said.
Before starting treatment, Mitchell had one round of IVF and was able to get six fertilised eggs.
"I still live in hope that one day I will be able to conceive naturally but it's nice to have that reassurance."
She then had 18 weeks of chemo through Christmas and New Year, before a five-hour lumpectomy surgery one week before New Zealand went into lockdown.
Her tumour shrunk by 75 per cent and after 19 rounds of radiation she is officially cancer free but will still need annual checks as it could come back.
She said before getting diagnosed with cancer it was easy to let challenges get the better of her and become negative.
"Now, I strive to find the positive outcome in any situation. It's really changed my perspective and how I think about things and deal things - we call have nitty gritty things but I just think I get to stand up every day on my own two feet and feel good about getting a whole other shot at life, and I'm so grateful for that."
About Change and Check
Broadcaster Sarah Gandy - who was diagnosed with breast cancer early last year and is now in remission - teamed up with BCFNZ to this month launch the Change and Check campaign.
"This project is all about getting women thinking and checking their boobs at a time that works for them. We all know the signs of a cold. How great would it be if women had that same level of knowledge about what their boobs are telling them?," Gandy said.
Gandy was inspired by the success of the UK's Change and Check campaign, endorsed by Emma Bunton (Baby Spice) and Madonna, and saw the benefit to starting a similar project here in New Zealand.
Stickers showing nine common signs of breast cancer are being displayed in dozens of clothing stores and gyms across the country.
The message is simple - know the warning signs of breast cancer and if you notice anything unusual get it checked out by a doctor straight away.
Evangelia Henderson, chief executive of Breast Cancer Foundation NZ, said it was concerning to see the lack of knowledge about breast cancer.
"I'm worried young Kiwi women aren't as vigilant as they could be about their breast health."
Henderson said tragically 650 Kiwi women were lost to breast cancer every year, which was why we need to keep spreading the message that early detection gives you the best chance for surviving breast cancer.
"We're urging women to recognise the signs and 'know your normal' – download our Pre Check app to teach you how."