Donna, NSW – Yes I lost my hair, but I took control

April 2nd, 2014

In February 2009 I was named Woman of the Year for the Dubbo electorate in recognition of 10 years of service to charities helping women with breast cancer. This has included setting up and facilitating “Look Good…Feel Better”, co-coordinating Cancer Council’s “Girls’ Night In” events, teams for “Relay for Life” and “Mini-Field of Women” for Breast Cancer Network Australia.

In March 2009 my daughter Gabrielle accompanied me to Sydney to attend a presentation at Parliament House, hosted by Premier Nathan Rees. My girlfriend had insisted we stay with her, as she had flown her two sisters and my close friends to spend the weekend and spoil us. On Sunday morning while enjoying breakfast, my friend’s husband who was working for Myer was telling me how BreastScreen NSW was now in some of their bigger stores to make it more accessible to women.

He asked me about our local BreastScreen, to which I said, “Well, I haven’t had a mammogram, but I check my breasts; I don’t think I am high risk as I’ve breastfed three children, my mother and grandmothers have never had breast cancer, I am 44 and life is so busy I haven’t had time to fit in an appointment.” My friends asked how I could sit there and tell them everything I do for everyone else and not make the time for the most important person – myself. So, I promised I would go home and make an appointment.

On returning home, I was busy again but my girlfriend called to see if I had kept my promise. I contacted BreastScreen, and spoke with an acquaintance who was the promotions officer. I suggested putting a challenge out there to find 60 women in Dubbo with breast cancer who don’t know it, which are the statistics for the population of Dubbo.

I made an appointment for all the women in the office over age 40 and up we headed to our afternoon tea. We sat there and supported each other, making jokes as we waited for the next one to come out. For me, it was quiet painless and not what I had expected after seeing the e-mails about preparing yourself by putting your breast in the fridge door and slamming it.

I never really gave it another thought even the following week when the girls said they received their all-clear letters. I said, “Well, my would be the same,” and didn’t worry about collecting the letter from my post box. I had then headed away with the girls for a weekend, and it was while driving home I received the call that has changed my life. BreastScreen called asking why I hadn’t contacted them about their letter, which said they had found a suspicious lump in my left breast.

I headed back to the BreastScreen cottage 48 hours later for further tests, which confirmed four days later I had breast cancer; something I thought would never happen to me! As they say, cancer does not discriminate and it must not have known I should be low risk. I didn’t want to waste the energy wondering, “Why me?” I didn’t want this but decided to accept it and do something with it.

So through my position and profile, I went public. I had my mind made up to tell my story and hopefully save another’s life. For me, having my community behind me gave me the strength I needed to face this and I didn’t what to let anyone down. So, I was going to do the best I could and we started our “Searching for 60” campaign.

Every week in our paper we focused at least one article on breast cancer and cancer in general. I had to be strong. Everyone was counting on me, so thought I would find good or a lighter side in this madness and I did. Yes, chemo is terrible but I had an excuse – when I forgot something I would say “Sorry, ‘Chemo Fog’!”

Yes, I lost my hair but I took control. My family and friends shaved it off while living out their hairdresser dreams. It was a great reason to have a party. Girlfriends came over to help pick out my four wigs. Blonde for Saturday nights and brunette during the week, no hairdresser costs, no styling in the morning and more sleep-ins. It was an excuse if I didn’t want to go out, as I had to wash my hair which took 24 hours to dry.

I had seven weeks radiation treatment in Sydney where I stayed at the Jean Colvin Cancer Centre, a hostel for country cancer patients. Here, I met some amazing people who have amazing stories. I believe being positive helped me get through it. The best thing was receiving calls from girls my age thanking me for saving their lives through telling my story. It was the hardest thing I have had to do and I did nearly lose my life during treatment, when I developed blood clots in my lung!

In the last five years, I have done some amazing things I don’t think I would have if I didn’t have breast cancer. I set up a local “Charity Pink Angels” to support, care and help other local breast cancer patients with practical services such as yard and lawn care, housekeeping and meals. I have made new friends and experiences through Pink Angels, including travelling in the outback with Rotary to promote the charity. In 2013, I was chosen to grace the cover of the local phone book as the founder of Pink Angels.