“We found sprinkles,” the doctor told me, following my first ever mammogram.
My mind instantly went to the hundreds and thousands kind of sprinkles that kids put on ice-cream. Those were not the sprinkles she was talking about. She was talking about cancerous, deadly sprinkles.
And then the words that no one ever wants to hear, “We think it could be breast cancer.”
When I went along for my first ever mammogram at 30, I wasn’t worried at all. Routine breast screening starts at 40 years of age for women with a family history and 50 years of age for women without a family history. The only reason I was there in the first place was under duress from my mother who had been diagnosed with breast cancer earlier in that same year.
1 in 8 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer during their lifetime. That’s 17,586 women in Australia in 2017 alone. No one ever thinks they are going to be the 1 in 8. I was the 1 in 8.
The silver lining was that the sprinkles were the best kind of breast cancer to have because they were confined to the duct. I had a lumpectomy to remove the tumour, then a course of radiotherapy and went on my merry way thanking my lucky stars for early detection.
What I didn’t know at the time was that breast cancer wasn’t done with me yet.
Three years passed and, after a struggle, I was finally pregnant with my long awaited second baby. I returned to the breast clinic for a routine ultrasound as being pregnant meant that I couldn’t have mammograms. This time, I recognised the signs and, one by one, they were all there... the repeated ultrasounds, the long delays and finally being called by the doctor into a private room.
“We’ve found something in the same breast,” she said. “Not far from the original site. We’re reasonably confident it’s hormonal changes related to your pregnancy, but given your history and your condition, we want to do a biopsy to be sure.”
I had to wait a couple of days for the results and whilst I was concerned, I wasn’t panicked. I took comfort in the doctor’s assessment that it was in all likelihood pregnancy related changes.
Finally, late Friday afternoon the call came from my breast surgeon. It was dinnertime at our house so I escaped the noise of the kitchen and went and sat at the top of the internal stairs to take the call. After I hung up, my husband poked his head out of the kitchen. He made eye contact with me and I shook my head. With that small gesture, he instantly knew.
I was 33 years old, 30 weeks pregnant and facing breast cancer for the second time in my life. Any fear I had felt the first time was completely eclipsed this time by the sheer terror of what was going to happen to my unborn baby. I had a mastectomy at 32 weeks pregnant, was induced and gave birth to a healthy beautiful baby girl at 36 weeks gestation and started chemotherapy eight days later with her in my arms.
Breast cancer is not a disease that just affects older women. It doesn’t discriminate. In fact, breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer for women aged 20-39 years. You owe it to yourself to take responsibility for your health, so if something were to go wrong — as it did twice with me — you can give yourself the best possible chance of beating it. I’m living proof that young women can get breast cancer too.
Nat’s tips for breast awareness
For more information on the signs and symptoms of breast cancer, and how you can support the National Breast Cancer Foundation, click here.