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December 9, 2013

Zara – A World Turned Upside Down

When I turned 29 I complained about getting old, as I looked down the barrel of the last year of my twenties. I was completely oblivious to how much my life would change by the time I turned 30.

A few months before my 30th birthday I felt pain down the side of my breast and under my arm. I couldn’t feel a lump, but I still panicked, as one of my girlfriends had breast cancer at age 23. I Googled breast cancer symptoms and the information I found said breast cancer is usually painless, and that less than 1% of Australian women diagnosed with breast cancer are aged under 30. So, I decided that pain was a good sign, and statistically, it wasn’t going to happen to more than one person in my group of friends in our twenties… and life was going too well for me for something like this to happen! So I did nothing.

Two months later the pain was still there, so I went to the doctor. He couldn’t find a lump either but thankfully sent me for an ultrasound to determine the cause of the pain. That ultrasound potentially saved my life. I was told the area causing me pain was nothing to be concerned about, but there was a 2cm centimetre lump in another part of the same breast that needed investigation. I was aghast at how obvious the lump was once I knew it was there.

After a subsequent biopsy and anxious two week wait from my first doctor’s appointment, I was diagnosed with breast cancer, the week before my 30th birthday. Two days later I had surgery to remove the lump and two lymph nodes. Thankfully, the cancer hadn’t spread and the surgical margins were clear, but on the last day of my twenties I was told there was an invasive type of cancer growing within the lump that had been removed and because of this I would need treatment. I was inconsolable, unable to comprehend how or why this had happened to me. I collapsed onto Mum’s couch and sobbed, overwhelmed with grief and fear.

I remember my 30th birthday as a day of both extreme happiness and sorrow. I felt like I was floating on a cloud, buoyed by the outpouring of love and support from family, friends and colleagues. But I couldn’t shake the sick horrible feeling I had inside as I tried to come to terms with my diagnosis. Life as I knew it had changed. I was terrified about the unknown journey ahead of me.

There was no known history of breast cancer in my family, but I qualified for genetic testing because of my age. I was relieved to find out I don’t have the BRCA1 or 2 gene mutations, but the day after I found this out and three days before I commenced six weeks of daily radiotherapy, we found out that my mother, my rock, also had breast cancer. Four weeks into my radiotherapy she had a double mastectomy. Although I felt incredibly lucky not to require further surgery or chemotherapy, Mum’s diagnosis turned my world upside down. I felt like a ticking time bomb, not a matter of if I would go off again, but when.

I struggled with the daily routine of going to radiotherapy because it was a constant reminder of what had happened to Mum and I. It felt completely bizarre, as a fit and healthy young woman, to be sitting in a white hospital gown waiting for treatment with people who were really sick, people with no hair, people who were much older than me. I could not help but be filled with thoughts about my own mortality and fear about what the future may hold for me.

We don’t know if there is a genetic link between Mum’s cancer and mine, but they were different types of cancer, which suggests there isn’t.

I am back to full health – in fact healthier now than I have ever been – and my prognosis is excellent because my cancer was detected early.

I can genuinely say that I now have a more positive outlook on my life as a result of this experience and I am grateful for the perspective it has given me.

It has helped lay the foundations for how I want to live the rest of my life. It has made me a much stronger, more resilient person. I feel ready to take on the world! I am more in tune with my body and have learned to be much kinder to myself. I am more determined than ever before to get the most out of every day and to be the very best that I can be. I have a new-found appreciation for the people in my life, whose extraordinary kindness and support throughout this experience has resulted in much closer bonds and more fulfilling relationships. I have learned the difference between things that are worth worrying about and things that are not. I also have learned to live in the moment, let go of things that have happened in the past, and not worry what may or may not happen in the future. I am more at peace with myself than I have ever been.

And, I will never, complain about getting old again.