By Jodi Bryant
Driving to her doctor's appointment, busy working mother of two, Sam Minckley casually reminded husband Dean over the phone that she was getting a lump checked on her breast.
"You don't need to bother doing that, do you?" he asked. "After-all you're only 30. You'll be fine."
But given her family history, Sam replied, it was better to be safe than sorry and she carried on her way.
Half an hour later, her world turned upside-down.
"I was referred straight to the breast clinic," she recalls. "I was shocked, in disbelief."
Sam had a fair idea what was ahead of her. Her mother and best friend Kath Jaggard had only been declared cancer-free one week earlier after battling breast cancer herself, having been diagnosed six months after burying her own mother for the same reason.
"I didn't tell mum for a couple of weeks. I didn't want to break her heart," Sam says, her voice cracking as she glances at her beloved mother.
"I didn't know if it was anything until we got the results back. But I couldn't carry on with life without telling mum. I finally walked in and said 'Mum, we need to talk'."
"It's the worst thing a parent could have to go through," says Kath, wiping her eyes.
Kath and Sam, both from Whangarei, have a long family history of cancer. When Kath's mother was diagnosed, the lump in her breast was already 80mm. It was a regular mammogram in 2015 which picked up on the 20mm lump in Kath's breast, which turned out to be a Grade Two, triple positive hormone-type cancer.
But like her mother too, she didn't tell her daughter at first.
"I knew something was going on," recalls Sam, now 32. "But she didn't tell me so we went on our cruise."
"I wasn't going to ruin your holiday," laughs Kath through her tears. "It was heart-wrenching," she describes of the moment she was diagnosed. "We'd both watched nana go through it."
"It was pretty horrible," confirms Sam. "I wasn't worried though. You were gonna come through," she smiles.
Kath's 18 months of treatment involved four rounds of chemotherapy, 15 rounds of radiotherapy, herceptin and a partial mastectomy.
"So, I only have half a boob," says Kath, 57. "But they got it all and it's not in my lymph nodes so I was cancer-free."
Sam's diagnosis, however, was much worse. One week after her mum's discharge from oncology in 2016, she noticed a lump during a self-check.
But, to everyone's surprise, including the surgeon, the mammogram, ultra sound scan and biopsy, during which nine samples were taken in one sitting, results all came back benign.
"Oh it was great news," Sam recalls. "I had a party."
In fact, the family planned a holiday to celebrate being cancer-free. But the relief was short-lived.
"My surgeon, Maxine Ronald, wasn't convinced the tumours were benign and had called me back for a lumpectomy. I guess it was in the back of my head that there was still a possibility but I wasn't dwelling on that. As far as I was concerned, I was cancer-free and had been for a month and then the day we flew out for a week's family holiday in Australia, I got the news from the surgeon.
"It was horrible and I was dreading coming back but I came back and went in for an MRI and they discovered more growing.
She got me in and opened me up and she knew exactly what it was but wouldn't tell me until the end result came back. I am so lucky she wasn't happy with the results. Maxine Ronald is amazing, I owe my life to her."
Sam's diagnosis was a mouthful but one, now so often recited, she can reel off without hesitation: Invasive ductal carcinoma grade three, stage three triple negative breast cancer.
"It was fast-growing and aggressive so they put me through chemo first before the surgery."
Sam had six cycles of chemotherapy at the Jim Carney Cancer Treatment Centre in Whangarei before undergoing a bilateral mastectomy with implant reconstruction.
"Seven hours she was under the knife," recalls Kath. "I remember it well."
"And that first day of chemo, you never should have come over," says Sam. "It was horrible. Mum's been there the whole time."
"I knew what it was like," replies Kath. "You just try and keep me away."
"Chemo pretty much kills you to make you better," explains Sam. "It's really, really nasty. But I'm still here," she smiles at her mother.
"I know," her mum smiles back, placing an arm around her daughter's shoulder. "And, as my mother would say: 'You can't kill a weed'."
It's this humour and close bond which has helped them get through, although Kath says she and her husband Russell spent the last two years feeling helpless following their daughter's diagnosis.
Sam also credits the support of her husband Dean, who, throughout the ordeal, held both her hand and fort on the family front with sons Oliver, now ten, and Kane, eight.
"Oliver, being the oldest, was more aware of everything because of nana and mum going through it all but Kane had just turned six so he was a bit more oblivious," says Sam, admitting that, although she doesn't have a daughter, it is always in the back of her mind that males too can get breast cancer.
As well as family, Sam's friends rallied around in support.
"Something I told my friends and family was: 'Never cry in front of me, I have my own tears to deal with', and: 'I got this' and they would say back to me: 'And we got you'.
Sam says, during chemo, she put on 11kg and her energy was zapped.
"There were times I couldn't do anything, not even walk. Your bones just hurt. Dean and I went to do the groceries one day and it took me an hour and a half to get round the supermarket. He had to carry me out to the car and I slept the rest of the day!" she laughs.
"We're both still going through 'chemo brain'," says Kath.
"Even now," adds Sam, "I'm in bed at 8pm every night. I have to remind myself that I went through a lot and can't just do everything I want to do."
Then there's the weak fingernails, which constantly break, hair that's growing back wayward and the lack of inner strength across her chest.
"When they did the surgery, they had to lift my pectoral muscle up so, things like pushing slightly heavy doors open or lifting my arms up to hang the washing are now hard as I have no strength in my chest.
"Oh and the water in my implants gets really cold, especially when I'm standing on the sidelines watching the kids play soccer on a Saturday morning!
"But I'm still here," she repeats looking over at her mother.
"We will live with the way it is," concludes Kath.
On April 10, 2017, Sam was given the all-clear and it's a day she remembers well.
"What a relief, I don't have to go through this anymore. I can start getting my life back on track."
As far as new outlooks on life are concerned, it's the usual answers: 'Appreciate everything, live every day, don't put anything off, enjoy life, be happy, be positive' - with a few cheeky add-ins:
"Eat that pudding, have that chocolate," says Sam. "Actually, eat dessert first even!"
"Don't save your wine for a special occasion," adds Kath. "And spoil your grandkids."
"Yes, make more memories with your kids," concludes Sam, before revealing they are about to embark on their third family cruise.