Aroha and Moehewa Armstrong had their whole lives ahead of them. Both in their 40s, the parents of four children had successful careers and were dreaming about the future. But a few months ago, one word changed their lives forever: Cancer. Aroha was told her best chance at beating that cancer was an unfunded chemotherapy drug with a hefty price tag. But when the world could have dragged them down, the community banded together to hold them up. Aroha's husband Moehewa has shared how support to fund that drug has given the couple the gift of hope.
Just over two months ago, the lives of Aroha and Moehewa Armstrong were flipped upside down when they got the news that Aroha had breast cancer.
Soon after, she had a mastectomy and was told it had been removed but she would still need to go for chemotherapy.
Her two best friends, Lillian Grace, the chief and founder of Figure.NZ and New Zealand designer Kiri Nathan were going to take her for coffee to celebrate the news after the follow-up oncologist appointment.
They joined her and her husband for what they thought would be a straightforward oncologist appointment to arrange the next treatment time but were instead told the bad news - the cancer had spread.
The oncologist recommended Pertuzumab, a chemotherapy drug only funded for terminal cancer. Otherwise, it carried a hefty price tag of $6500 per treatment and Aroha needed four rounds.
"To be quite frank its a matter of life and death," Moehewa Armstrong told the Rotorua Daily Post .
In the five days following the appointment, $26,000 was raised to fund the drug via Givealittle.
He said the generosity had and still was blowing them away.
"When she went for her first shot she described it as an intravenous shot of love that was made possible by so many people," he said.
"Even kids are got their piggy-bank money and put it towards Aroha ... It's pretty unreal."
He said doctors were "hitting her hard" with the chemotherapy.
He said Aroha's natural ability to be positive was holding them together, with simple things like calling the chemotherapy "little Pacmen doing their job" whenever she felt sore or exhausted.
"Especially for a girl that didn't even like taking Panadol because she didn't like chemicals in her body to have these hardcore chemicals put into her body.
"But she knows that's the only way to get better."
Raised in Rotorua, the couple moved to Auckland three years ago with their four children to further their careers but they kept their Rotorua home in the hope of someday moving back.
But the diagnosis has meant the family has reshaped the focus and will sell their Rotorua home to remove the stress of the mortgage.
Friends and family in Rotorua came together in a working-bee on Saturday to get the house ready to put up for sale.
Longstanding local GP Dr John Armstrong said seeing the devastation caused by a cancer diagnosis in his profession made his daughter-in-law's diagnosis even more difficult for him to deal with.
"Everybody just hates that word cancer," he said.
Armstrong is the longest-serving GP in Rotorua. Committed to improving Māori health, he created the Whānau Ora programme to support those with high-risk chronic disease as well as a post-mortem diversion scheme.
"It's one thing to get a diagnosis of cancer when it's found on a screening mammogram and it's early, but when you get a diagnosis and it's already spread into the nodes it's devastating."
Aroha has another three months of intensive chemotherapy ahead, followed by radiation therapy, a different drug for 12-months and another for 10 years.
Breast Cancer Foundation research manager Adele Gautier said Pertuzumab was funded in some cases but was not funded for those with Stage 3 cancer because there was mixed evidence on whether or not or could prevent cancer from coming back.
"It's usually only for incurable cancer that it's funded."
Aroha is at the top end of Stage 3 so does not qualify for the funding.
Though feeling "wiped out" from her treatment, Aroha said she was grateful to cancer for the lessons it had taught her about life and love.
"So many of us put our health last…but unfortunately those with the superhuman capes seem to forget about stress levels, diet, exercise, and dare I say it fun."
Her faith in humanity was restored, she said as she watched the love of those around her support her and her family since her diagnosis, as she simultaneously learnt the importance of how to live in the now.
"[It was] a reminder about how beautiful life is and how much I have taken for granted."
What is Pertuzumab?
• Pertuzumab is a chemotherapy drug used to treat an aggressive type of breast cancer called HER2 positive: a targeted treatment of a specific cancer.
• Given intravenously it binds to the HER2 receptors on the tumour.
• The publically funded drug Herceptin is used in combination with Pertuzumab to make it more powerful.
Source: Breast Cancer Foundation