How does life change when you are diagnosed with breast cancer?


Our son was born without complications despite intrauterine chemotherapy from 26 weeks. He is now six years old. Her siblings are eight and ten years old. They all saw me undergo treatment and side effects. They know what cancer is, but we don’t really talk about it. Tom and I have decided once things start to go downhill, we’ll tell them what’s going on.

Metastatic breast cancer cannot be cured, but as treatment improves, more women are living with it longer. In the past 18 months, I have taken three different medications which did not work. I am taking a new medicine now, but the cancer is slowly spreading again. Two days ago I asked my oncologist, is this our last chance? She told me no.

I live each day as if I have six months left. I don’t look sick, which can sometimes be a double-edged sword. I want people to see me for who I am – a friend, a wife, a mother, a daughter. But at the same time, I need them to understand my limits.

Once, I was in a playground with my child who was having a big tantrum. I couldn’t bend down and lift her because of my spine. Other people were looking at me, wondering why I wasn’t helping my daughter. It’s hard when people judge you without knowing your story. It reminds me to be kind and not to judge because no one really knows what someone else is going through.

“I thought men couldn’t get breast cancer”

When Melbourne bus driver David Cowan, 64, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2017, he was in disbelief, then devastated. Now he is determined to encourage other men to check their breasts regularly for changes.

David Cowan now tells other men to come in for a checkup if something goes wrong.

“I was taking a shower one morning when I felt a lump on my chest. I thought it was an ingrown hair or something. I didn’t do anything until a few weeks later when I noticed he was getting bigger. I asked my wife Debra to take a look. She told me to see a doctor right away.

Most men are reluctant to see a doctor. We believe that if we ignore the symptoms, they will go away. I’m lucky my wife is a nurse, otherwise I would have waited longer. I had a mammogram and an ultrasound, and the tests are not good. A biopsy confirmed that I had grade 3 breast cancer.

I felt devastated because I honestly believed that men couldn’t get breast cancer. I thought it was a woman’s disease. But suddenly I was there, reserving myself to have the breast tissue removed. I didn’t feel like I belonged at the breast cancer clinic because it was just me and all these women.

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It was all very intimidating. My operation was the easy part, compared to the six months of chemotherapy that followed.

Chemo fry your brain. It’s horrible. I felt tired and was in pain all the time. Now I am taking tamoxifen which has side effects including headache, diarrhea, nausea, sleeplessness, and heart problems. I have to take it for at least five years, so I have two more left.

I used to find it embarrassing to talk about my breast cancer. So I thought, you gotta let the other guys know about this. Now I’m happy to tell everyone about it, especially the men. I tell them to get tested if they notice anything unusual. Don’t ignore it.

There were times when I thought I couldn’t get out of it. I’m not ashamed to say that I thought about suicide. I went to see a psychologist who really helped me. Now I thank God for my family every day. I wouldn’t be anywhere without their love and support. We have left Melbourne now and I have learned to slow down. I still drive buses but just part time. I don’t take a day for granted. We like to think we’re bulletproof, but when you get a diagnosis like this you realize how precious life is.

“Working with cancer patients is incredibly rewarding”

Adelaide psycho-oncologist Dr. Charlotte Tottman, 57, has been counseling cancer patients since 2013. When she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2018, it gave her a new approach to her practice.

Dr. Charlotte Tottman's own experience led her to reflect on her own clinical practice.

Dr. Charlotte Tottman’s own experience led her to reflect on her own clinical practice.

“I had a background in the corporate sector, but in my mid-forties I did a doctorate in clinical psychology and found my niche in psycho-oncology. Working with cancer patients is incredibly rewarding. It is a privilege to be around someone who is going through this often long, complicated and exhausting experience.

Both of my parents died of cancer when I was 20, and my four grandparents had some form of cancer. Despite this, I was in disbelief when I was diagnosed with breast cancer myself in 2018. We were on vacation. I was putting on sunscreen when I felt a lump in my right breast. When we got home there was a free BreastScreen Australia check card buried in a big pile of mail. I looked at it and thought, well, if there’s something wrong, it’ll pick it up.

I made an appointment for next week without really admitting to myself that there was already something wrong. I think at some level I believed that this couldn’t happen to me. I was different. I was a health care professional. I told myself that even if I had cancer, it wouldn’t have the same impact on me as it would have on so many of my clients.

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Of course, I quickly discovered that I was no different from the others, which was one of my greatest learnings. A few weeks later, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Fortunately, it had not spread. I have discussed treatment options with my doctor and with my husband, Robin. Due to my family history, we decided to have a bilateral mastectomy.

I thought if this could save my life, I had to do it. Our four grown children had all left the house, so my breasts were not really needed anymore. I also gave up reconstruction surgery. A lot of women – certainly a lot of my clients – feel pressured to undergo breast reconstruction. Yet reconstructive surgery is a huge undertaking, often involving multiple surgeries, a lot of recovery time, and the potential for serious complications.

My own experience with cancer has certainly given me a pause to reflect on my clinical practice. One thing that I came to understand was the fear of reoffending. The idea that cancer might somehow come back stays with you forever after you’ve been diagnosed. It’s a very visceral fear, which I don’t think you can fully understand unless you’ve experienced it. There is no guarantee that you will be in the clear forever. My work with the fear of recidivism is much better now than before.

I am also fully aware now that everyone’s experience is different. I’ve always known this intellectually, but my own experience has confirmed to me that you can have the same clinical diagnosis as someone else and yet your response to cancer, both psychological and physical, will never be the same as someone else’s.

Breast Cancer Network Australia has released a special 10-part podcast series with Dr Charlotte Tottman titled About breast cancer, available at bcna.org.au.
Lifeline: 13 11 14

This article appears in Sunday life magazine within the Sun-Herald and the Sunday age on sale October 17th. To learn more about Sunday Life, visit The Sydney Morning Herald and Age.

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