Three breast cancer survivors share their incredible stories

With advice on how to be more breast aware.

By Joshua Joynes

Breast cancer is the most common cancer affecting Australian women. This year alone, it is estimated that 18,087 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer, but now more than ever, the number of deaths caused by breast cancer is decreasing.

We've seen celebrities like Roxy Jacenko and Julia-Louis Dreyfus face their own battles and in the lead up to Breast Cancer Awareness Month Cosmopolitan sat down with three incredible women from Australia's Young Women's Breast Cancer Charity SoBrave whose stories, ambition and bravery will help inspire you.

Their mission? To teach all women to be breast aware, trust your intuition and always follow up your concerns with a GP visit.

Emma Kate White, 29, Perth, Western Australia

I was diagnosed with breast cancer at 24 years old. At the time I was four years into my dream job as a paramedic. I was so happy as I had just finished all university studies. Everything changed so much when I got diagnosed - I felt terrified, because my future was up in the air, and I'd lost all control of my life.

I found a lump in the right breast near my breast bone about four weeks before I was diagnosed. I had had a few lumps before that went away with my cycle, so I wasn't overly concerned. I went to the GP and she wasn't concerned as she said it felt OK, I had no family history that I knew of and I was so young, so she sent me away quite confident it was all clear. I still felt uneasy about it, maybe due to what I see at work, I was worried more than I should have been. I went back to the GP a week later still not convinced everything was OK. The doctor called me into her office that afternoon, and when she said the words 'I'm sorry you have cancer' my world just stopped. I was shattered, scared, panicked, all at once. I felt like I couldn't breathe.

I had six months of chemo, which was pretty frantic but manageable. When I was diagnosed I had genetic testing done to see if there was a genetic cause, and I got the results back during chemo. It turns out I was BRCA1 Positive - this. this meant that I was at high risk of breast cancer and ovarian cancer and the statistics were not in my favour. So last year I had a partial hysterectomy in order to prevent the ovarian cancer that I probably would have developed. I then had to have a double mastectomy and reconstruction - this enabled them to make sure they got all the cancer out. And I now have a nice pair of perky boobs as a result.

I'm in a good place at the moment, I've finished with chemotherapies and surgeries. I've had all my reconstruction surgeries and am really happy with all the results. I get check-ups and scans regularly as the type of tumour I had had a high recurrence rate. Due to the hysterectomy, I'm in menopause, so I'm slowly getting around that.

I have learnt so much from this experience - I'm so lucky to have beautiful family and friends that have supported me so much. I have learnt the meaning of courage and perseverance - there are times when you don't think you can keep going but somehow you do. You need to live in every moment, because life is so precious and short and you never know what is going to happen. Appreciate your health and what you do have.

Rachelle Pantiz, 36, Brisbane Queensland

Life before my diagnosis was amazing. I was building a career in International Government Relations that I had been working towards since leaving university. I was excited for what my future had in store. My daughter was 2 years old at the stage of my diagnosis and my husband and I were preparing for the arrival of my son. I was lying in bed one night during the later stages of my pregnancy and I saw a reminder card from the Sydney Breast Cancer Foundation that my sister had sent me hanging in my cupboard. It instantly reminded me to do a self-breast exam.

I felt a hard lump on the right side of my right breast, and weeks later, it was confirmed I had cancer. Because of the excessive treatment, I wasn't able to spend those precious first months with my son that every mother has a right to. Going through all the treatment gave me the opportunity to reassess my life and what I wanted to do. After I finished my own treatment, I decided to change direction and this lead me to starting a charity specifically for young women with breast cancer. SoBrave has been a massive passion project but also an incredibly healing adventure. I have met incredible young women across the country.

Suddenly, I'm not the girl with breast cancer, but the person helping other young women to heal, to share their stories and to inspire others.
It's now 4 and a half years since I was first diagnosed. I'm still seeing doctors, taking tablets daily and getting annual scans. I will be doing these things for most of my life. Being so close to 5 years since diagnosis gives me a lot to celebrate. Next year, my husband and I and a group of So Brave supporters will be walking the Camino in Spain. I am so excited to be able to travel overseas again with my family and start getting my life back to where it was before cancer. Young women need to know their bodies and be their best health advocates.

Had it not been for trusting my own instincts, I'm not sure where I might be now. Young women need to know that cancer does not discriminate - I was young, I had breastfed, I've never smoked, I didn't drink a lot of alcohol - and certainly not while I was pregnant in the months preceding my diagnosis, there is no history of breast or any other cancer in my family and yet, I was diagnosed with all these low risk factors. The whirlwind of treatment and diagnosis is one of the worst things I've ever faced, but I've come through it even stronger and more determined to change the future, especially for my daughter and son. In their lifetime, cancer will be understood, it will be treatable, and hopefully, it will be cured. One day this will all be a distant memory.

Amy Vasiliev, 37, Springwood NSW

I was diagnosed at the age of 31, I had an 11 year old (step daughter), 2.5 year old and a 22 month old. I had just started working with my Aunty and Uncle in their surgery and was very excited about returning to work as I had been a stay at home mum for the last 2 years. Our family was complete and we were onto the next stage of our lives, raising our family and looking forward to a bright and happy future together. I was so happy and recall saying to my Husband one day"life is perfect". Then I was diagnosed with cancer and my entire world came crashing down. Cancer kills! I didn't know if I was going to make it through and what was install but I knew I was going to fight it with everything I had, especially because every family needs a mum and I couldn't bear the thought of my kids growing up without their mum.

Due to family history, I would check my breasts at the start of every month. On Anzac Day 2013 I had a shower and noticed a lump in my left breast. I thought that was very unusual. I thought to myself that if the lump gets bigger I'll worry about it but over lunch I had mentioned it to friends who urged me to get it check. I couldn't get into my usual GP and asked my Uncle who I had just started working for, if he would please check the lump. He confirmed the there was a lump and send me for more testing. The US showed another 2 suspicious areas. I felt so sick, worried and sad. I kept asking the sonographer if he could please tell me if he thought it was cancer but he couldn't and would try to distract me with asking me questions about my life. My heart raced and I started to sweat. She sat down and said to me"I wanted to get to you before you saw your results on the Fax. I'm sorry Amy, I don't know how to tell you this"So I interrupted her, I didn't want her to have to tell me and I said"I have cancer don't I?"She nodded her head and said "yes, I'm sorry".

The room started to spin and I couldn't hear a single thing she was saying to me. I sat there completely numb! It felt like an eternity and then my fight and flight kicked in... I could hear my heart beating so fast....... I stated to cry, I cried and cried and cried and kept saying"i can't die, people die from this! I can't die"
After what seemed like forever I left her room and went into the next room and my co-worker come in to comfort me. I called my loved ones and told them the news, they couldn't believe it. we were in complete shock and disbelief. My perfect world had come crashing down around me and I had no idea if it would be fixed. I had just been diagnosed with a very aggressive form of ductal carcinoma. I was diagnosed on the Friday and on the Monday I was seeing the breast surgeon who sent me for various tests to see if the cancer had spread, these test took a couple of weeks to get through and then waiting for the results felt even longer but thankfully the cancer hadn't spread.

I struggled to keep 'it' together and would often spend my days crying. I couldn't even tuck my kids into bed without sobbing. What if this time next year I'm dead and I'm not here to tuck them into bed???? they wont' remember who I am. I tried to stay positive but it was very hard. I would go on to need a double mastectomy and chemo + Herceptin as my cancer was hormone related. I had recover from the operation and would start my chemo in 1 month. I had 3 rounds of FEC (they almost killed me twice) 6 rounds of Taxol, 9 rounds of chemo all together and 17 rounds of Herceptin. My IV treatment went for 14 months with two operations. I underwent my double mastectomy 1 week before Christmas 2013. I finished all my treatment on 18th August 2014.I am blessed to have such amazing friends and family. My close friends decided that every month we would have an event. One month we had crazy wig night, where everyone can in crazy wigs. I am very blessed to have such good friends and family who supported me along the way. The one cancer couldn't take was my sense of humour.

I made sure i would laugh and still have fun even though my life can turned upside down. The other turning point was after my treatment and operations where i met Rachelle from so brave and had my photo shoot. I was disgusted by my appearance and hated my reflection. I still remember the reveal and saw how beautiful I was. I wasn't that ugly monster anymore. I was beautiful. I will always be thankful to Rachelle and Wendy for changing the way I see myself. I wear my scars with pride and am proud of how hard I fought to be here. It has been 5 years since my diagnosis.

For those who are watching a loved one go through this hell, be patient and supportive. If you don't know what to say, then say exactly that. It doesn't matter how small the gesture, if someone is sick it will give them a boost. I had so many people who couldn't visit but would cheer me on with txt messages or messages on FB or writing letters. When you're sick you feel so alone. It's nice to know people care.