Most of us know someone who has been affected by Breast Cancer. We have lost mothers, sisters, daughters, aunties, and friends. We have heard stories about how this devastating disease can rip through people’s lives. But many of us, like myself, have not heard the real story behind the diagnosis. I often ask myself questions, “how would I tell my kids? would I even tell them? and how soon does your hair fall out after you start chemo?” my mind would wander, thinking about how I would react and cope in such a terrifying situation that sadly, too many New Zealand woman face. One of these incredible women is Anna, a beautiful and talented lady who contacted me when I had put out a model call for nude models. Anna had jokingly said in our conversation “I keep forgetting I’ve only got one boob ..lol..”
I asked Anna if she would not only model for me but if she would be comfortable sharing her story, a story which I am honoured to be able to share with you here.
On Tuesday, the 18th July 2017 Anna and I organised a special photography shoot, one which would celebrate her recovery from Breast Cancer and promote the beauty of her healed body. I imagined it to be a shoot which would also remove the stigma and fear of breast cancer scars portraying inerrant courage and beauty. Angela McIntosh of Beauty by Angela kindly donated her time and services to the shoot giving Anna what she later described as “the best professional makeup she has ever had done”
I arrived at Anna’s home in Nelson on the Tuesday morning where I was welcomed inside by Anna and her bubbly six-year-old daughter Lucy. It was the school holidays and Lucy was enjoying a morning at home with her mum, Anna’s teenage son Tom was still asleep in bed. I sat down on her sofa and wondered how I was going to start talking about the fact she had breast cancer.
Most of us are afraid to ask somebody to talk to them about their experience with cancer, we are not sure what to say, how much empathy is appropriate – it is a taboo subject, but Anna was very forth coming as we sat down and started chatting.
Anna had no family history of cancer it was totally out of the blue.
“I used to make jokes about it [cancer]. I wasn’t a regular smoker, but when I did smoke and comments were made, I would say – I won’t get lung cancer I will die of breast cancer.”
She told me she was 36 when she was diagnosed and is 38 now.
At thirty years old, just before she became pregnant with Lucy, Anna developed a painful lump on her left breast, ‘black stuff’ oozed from the nipple, and she noticed that her breast had gone up two cup sizes. After a clear mammogram, Anna recalls being patted on the arm by her GP and “told its part of being a woman”. One month later Anna discovered she was pregnant and assumed the lump must’ve been part of her pregnancy symptoms.
Anna and her baby Lucy experienced “massive breastfeeding problems”, Anna developed postnatal depression, Lucy suffered from silent reflux and early 2015 the lump in Anna’s breast returned. Anna remembers saying to her sister-in-law “that damned lumps back again” to which her sister-in-law advised her to return to her GP. Her nipple was discharging and her breast was sore, and upon seeing the doctor it was a different story this time around. Things happened really fast, within one week Anna had a mammogram and ultra sound.
Speaking about her diagnosis Anna says
You could tell from the looks on their faces [radiologists] that it wasn’t good, they were apologetic, saying “I’m so sorry, although your very young we have to entertain the thought that this could be cancer”
The radiologists, seeing from Anna’s mammogram and ultrasound that things did not look good, stayed late with her that day to do a biopsy right away. They took nine chunks out of her breasts and lymph nodes.
It was a long two-week wait for the results, Anna knew it must be bad as she had an appointment sent in the mail for her to see a surgeon at the hospital. One of the hardest things was people saying to her constantly “You’re fine, you’ll be alright, people dismissed the subject of cancer they just didn’t know what to say” she said.
When the day of her appointment to see the surgeon came on the 2nd of November, Anna had no idea what to expect she knew nothing about what the lump was, but she knew it must be bad, so she took her sister-in-law along for support.
There was a whole team of people in the surgeon’s exam room, a registrar, nurse, the surgeon and a few other people. The surgeon began by asking Anna If she knew why she was there? Anna replied, “I know it’s a tumour” to which the surgeon said, “has anyone mentioned cancer? as I’m afraid that’s what it is”
Anna’s first reply was “okay” she was very calm and had this idea in her head that the doctors would cut out the tumour and it would be ok, she would be sweet. Her sister-in-law feeling the seriousness of the situation, was very upset.
The doctors gave her no options they told her how serious her situation was and that they would need to remove her entire left breast. “Fuck” it wasn’t sweet at all thought Anna.
What makes Anna’s story all the more heartbreaking is the fact that one month previous to her appointment with the surgeons and her cancer diagnosis, her brother was also diagnosed with cancer, sadly his was terminal and he passed away only three months later.
On leaving the specialists, Anna was told she would see them in three days for her breast removal surgery. This ended up being postponed for a week due to Lucy’s 5th birthday.
Anna explained to me that there are three categories for cancer treatment depending on the grade of cancer.
1. Cut it out and off you go
2. Throw the book at it
3. Make you comfortable
She told me the doctors said she was somewhere between number 2 and 3.
On 17th of November 2015 just two weeks after finding out she had breast cancer Anna underwent surgery for the removal of her left breast at Nelson Hospital.
Anna remembers feeling surreal, saying it felt she was in a movie about someone else. She remembers thinking “why am I not crying?” and said to me
“You’re just so in the zone of staying alive”
It was on this day that she said she told her first lie. Being a mother with cancer must be such a terrifying situation, which you would want to spare from your children so I can understand why before her surgery she said to her son “I’m not going to die.” It didn’t sink into her own mind that this cancer could kill her until much later.
It is during this part of our conversation that Lucy starts to cry, she had been sitting on her mum’s knee as her mother tells me her story. Anna tells me that she has never mentioned the “dying” word before to Lucy, just that “mum has been sick” the overall weight of the conversation is too much for her young daughter to comprehend, she cuddles her mum tightly and cry’s.
I felt bad and wondered if I should continue the conversation, but Anna reassured her daughter that mum is okay now, she battled cancer and won!
After waking up from the anaesthetic of her surgery Anna looked down and thought “oh yeah that’s [breast] gone” The removed tissue was sent away for testing and the result was better than anticipated because the primary tumour (the size of a marshmallow Easter egg) was only half malignant (cancerous)
Two weeks after her surgery Anna began her first chemo treatment, which had been postponed due to her brother’s funeral. She was terrified of having chemo and explained to me that there are two ways of administering it, you can have either a short sharp burst of treatment or a slower longer treatment that is less intense. She decided to get it over with and have a short sharp burst.
Anna told me that during treatment you’re hooked up to an IV for three hours with the chemotherapy drug being put into your system. She explained that some people notice no side effects until later, others almost immediately start to feel nauseous and vomit. Anna found chemo extremely difficult, she couldn’t function, couldn’t sleep and likened it to really bad morning sickness or one of those hangovers where you say, “I’m never drinking again”.
The hair, when did your hair start to fall out I ask? Loss of hair during cancer treatment is synonymous with the cancer journey and for most, it is one of the hardest parts. Anna was no different, telling me she was very scared about losing her lovely long blonde hair.
“I felt that it was definitely more massive losing my hair than my boob”
She explained to her to her children that her hair would fall out to prepare them, and suggested she would have fun before she lost it. Lucy enjoyed her mum’s mermaid hair which she coloured bright rainbow colours.
About one week after her first chemotherapy treatment bald patches started to appear on Anna’s head. She told me it would come out in clumps, and you could pull lots of it out. She said one night everyone had her hair in their mouths, it was all through the house and in people’s food. It was then that she said its time, and visited the hairdresser the next morning for the big shave. Anna had never had her head shaved before and told me that it felt weird, she said you can hear the water drumming down on your bald head when you have a shower. Showers of which were completed in thirty seconds, as you lose every single hair on your body. She explained that yes,
"your eyebrows, eyelashes and pubic hair fall out too"
Anna also told me that everyone’s hair grows back differently. Her hair has come back darker, thicker and wavy. She said she looked like she had an afro nana perm, to begin with!
Over the course of her treatment, she said, “you’re busy doing this [ fighting cancer] you are exhausted and you have to cope with people sending you all sorts of links online to alternative therapies which is not helpful, they think that it is but It’s not.”
Anna was a single mum; her family had just been through the sudden loss of her brother to cancer within the space of three months from diagnosis and just couldn’t watch her suffer. It was a lonely and extremely difficult time.
Anna managed her first three chemo treatments but during the fourth, her body could no-longer cope and she went into anaphylactic shock, a severe allergic reaction.
During the first few minutes of a chemotherapy treatment session a nurse sits and observes you, Anna said that in the early stages of her fourth treatment the nurse noticed her face starting to go red, and asked if she was okay
“All of the sudden I couldn’t breathe, I remember the crash carts and oxygen masks”
To try and reduce the risk of suffering from another anaphylactic reaction, her specialist put Anna on a lower dose of chemotherapy for her fifth treatment, but she suffered from the same terrible reaction. Due to Anna’s body being unable to cope with any more chemotherapy she decided to stop the treatments. She discussed this with her specialist who explained to her that the five treatments she had would’ve likely been enough to work, that the extra three treatments were ‘just-in-case’ and an MRI scan came back clear to reassure her that she could stop chemotherapy.
I asked Anna what support she has had available to her, the answers she gave me surprised me a lot. I was completely unaware that you need to contact the Cancer Society yourself should you develop cancer and need support and guidance. I assumed that upon diagnosis the cancer society would make contact with you, but no they don’t.
Cancer sufferers have to be proactive in getting support, and they have to fight for it.
Anna told me that a Cancer Society volunteer hands out sandwiches in the hospital during chemotherapy treatment, sandwich’s which make you vomit. They are there to support and answer questions, but most people are too sick to do that. Anna accessed one of her three free counselling sessions available to her through the Cancer Society, unfortunately, the counsellor she saw told her that she had never counselled someone with cancer before! Anna left and felt worse than before the session and became depressed.
Her Oncologist applied to the Regional Breast Cancer Society foundation for help with childcare costs and the oncology nurse suggested she apply for “Pink Pilates” which she received and told me is amazing for avoiding “cording” (where your tendons in the armpit go tight and rock solid after node removal) and lymphoedema (swelling of the limb)
There has been no aftercare for Anna’s oral health which has deteriorated due to her treatment. She has to sort her own dental care for her teeth, which have been badly damaged from the chemotherapy and are breaking and falling out. I was surprised to learn she doesn’t get any help for her teeth, I would’ve thought that this would-be part of the treatment and aftercare package provided to cancer patients.
The Ministry of Social development who had been giving Anna a benefit during her treatment, wanted her to find work or study two years after her diagnosis. This put pressure on her at a difficult time during which she developed clinical depression, a delayed reaction and post-traumatic stress from her ordeal combined with the fact she recently found another lump in her remaining breast. She had a mammogram and was told the lump was dense breast tissue and nothing to worry about (remember she was told a similar thing when she was patted on the back by her GP at age 30) Unfortunately not all cancer patients in remission are given follow-up full MRIs, or PET (bone) scans after treatment so you can imagine the constant worry that they must live with. Anna has since been placed on the sickness benefit.
It has been two years since Anna’s surgery and she is still on the waiting list for reconstruction and has not even been seen about it.
Anna is slowly coming to terms with what she has been through.
“I feel like the last two years has been a bad dream during which my brother and I got cancer and he died”
She says she is slowly recovering from the depression with the help of a good counsellor and can feel her mojo coming back with the return of her creative passions, such as script writing, acting, and working on renovating her house.
Anna has found incredible support from
Shocking Pink – It has kept her going
Whole Lota Life – A foundation started by women for under 45’s with cancer
Anna has shared her experience with us because she feels that it’s something a lot of people keep secret and she wants to bring more awareness to it.
“The journey is often unpleasant, and people don’t want to hear about it, they want to know your fine, and sometimes you just aren’t.”
Anna wants everyone to know that
“It’s okay to talk about it, and sometimes people need to”
Anna would like to thank the team at “The Jailhouse” and “Miss Nelson Summer 2014”
for creating a Givealittle page that raised enough money to ease the financial strain.
I would like to finish by thanking Anna for sharing her very personal journey with us.