Not so long ago, two women focused all their energy on being loving wives, mothers, running businesses, travelling and enjoying life. Life, however, was turned upside down when both were diagnosed with breast cancer 12 months ago, and their focus changed to beating the disease. Now, these women bravely share their stories…
If you were asked to write a bio your life 18 months ago, what would you have said?
Brenda: Eighteen months ago I would have said that my life was full. I had thrown myself into my Cosmetic & Laser Clinic working full pelt 6 days a week; I lived and breathed my job. Some would say I was maybe a little obsessive, as my goal was, and still is, to have the best practice on the East Coast.
I would also say that my reason for working so hard was to provide a good life for my family. My family has always been my number one priority; they’re everything to me. I can say I was a very happy, but exhausted wife and mother who wanted to be the best at everything! My life had become a major juggling act, as most women I’m sure reading this can relate to!
Michelle: My life was very full – my beautiful mother, Enid, had Alzheimer’s Disease, and for the past 12 years I worked very hard to ensure she had the very best life possible. I had just commenced my 15th year in what was our very successful company, Laing + Simmons, and it was my 27th year selling property. I was, and still am, extremely passionate and dedicated to my clients and real estate. Over those years, I had developed a huge network of beautiful clients, many of whom are now personal friends. I was working very hard – 6, sometimes 7, days a week, to ensure that my vendors and purchasers and my staff were really taken care of and I achieved the very best outcome for them.
Our beautiful daughter: Camille was completing a university degree, and we were planning a wonderful wedding with our now son-in law Tom. Our son, Jesse, had just finished his 5 year degree and was commencing a new job. Michael and I were keeping fit. I had taken up running about 6 years earlier and was enjoying training for the Gold Coast half marathon.
How did you find out that you had breast cancer, and what was your first thought?
Brenda: I first found out I had breast cancer when my family from Holland had noted that many relatives were carrying a BRCA1 gene. I was encouraged to be tested by close friends and family. Following this news, I went to the Doctor to get a referral for the test and had a physical examination of a swollen lymph node under my arm. I then had a mammogram and ultra sound, and then attended the Sydney Breast Clinic for a fine needle biopsy – which then confirmed I had cancer.
I had always considered myself as a normal risk; my family history did not consider me a high risk, as the only breast cancer noted was my grandmother at 40, but on my father’s side. Many doctors told me over the years that the risk lies on the mother’s side.
Michelle: My darling mum passed away on the 6 April 2010, and I was due for a routine mammogram and ultrasound 1 week later. I had been having yearly mammograms due to the presence of cysts in my breasts, which are very common. I had the mammogram and ultrasound and received a follow up call from my GP David Cooke, to say that I needed a needle biopsy to check some cells.
I immediately rang my friend, Sonia McKie, whose daughter had successfully gone through breast cancer, got the name of her surgeon and I booked in for the mammotone procedure – which are currently available in Sydney. My specialist then arranged to meet with me a week later. I felt confident that I would be fine, and it was just a routine procedure to be sure.
Michael and I sat in the waiting room, the specialist was over 1 hour late, and the news was: “You have ductal carcinoma” – in the milk duct of your right breast.
What followed was truly a surreal experience. I was trying to concentrate on what the specialist was saying about recommending a mastectomy of my right breast and him telling me that he could operate the following Tuesday – it was the previous Thursday.
At that moment, I truly understood that your life can change at any given moment, and I was about to face the biggest challenge of my life.
Before that day, had it ever crossed your mind that one day you might get breast cancer?
Brenda: Yes, but I was not considered at risk, so I believed I had a 1 in 8 chance like all other women. I also ate well and exercised, so I didn’t imagine that this was likely.
Michelle: I think that having breast cysts for the last 10 years made me very aware; however, it never really crossed my mind that I would be affected. I had never smoked, I rarely drank any alcohol, I was fit and well and a healthy weight – I guess like most people, you never think it is going to happen to you.
> What decisions were you immediately faced with after receiving the diagnosis?
Brenda: As I had been going through tests, I decided that I would do whatever is necessary and offered to me. I strongly believe that the doctors in the field of breast cancer are very knowledgeable and up to date with the best treatments and statistics.
I knew that I had to go through many steps and that life would never be the same. I knew that I would have multiple surgeries, chemotherapy, radiotherapy and then have to take Tamoxifen for the next 5 years.
Michelle: In my case, due to the location of the cells, the best option was to have a mastectomy, and they were able to do a reconstruction of my breast at the same time. At that point, I really just wanted to remove the invasive cancer cells from my body; I really just wanted it gone!
Where are you at now in the process of treatment and/or having beaten cancer?
Brenda: I have completed all the treatment required to overcome and beat cancer. It is important that I have regular checkups, participate in at least 5 – 7 hours exercise a week and eat a well balanced diet.
I believe it is vital to remain positive and know that like anyone, we all don’t know what is around the corner and to make the most of the situation you’re in … always live life to the full.
I do know, however, that I have a very good chance of surviving, and I plan to live and enjoy every single moment. Life will never be back to ‘normal’, because I as a person, I have changed. I am more in tune with my body, my family, my friends and my career. I still have great ambitions, but I am much kinder to myself. I have learnt to look after me, as well as all I love.
Michelle: I was very lucky. The cancer was not in my lymph nodes or in my tissue – normally you would not require chemotherapy in this case. The cancer was identified as HER2+, so my oncologist recommended highly to have 4 months of chemotherapy and a course for 12 months of a drug called HERCEPTIN.
What was the biggest challenge you faced and how did you overcome it?
Brenda: The biggest challenge was seeing the many daily things that my family and business needed doing and physically not being able to be there, or function. I found that my existence had to go on hold, and that all I could do was watch everyone carry on and deal with the situation as best as they could.
Michelle: The decision to have chemotherapy was the toughest challenge I have ever faced – I had never put a drug in my body, so it was incredibly difficult for me to do this. At one point, just before I had the first treatment, I just wanted to escape – I was terrified!
I guess all the years of facing the challenges life throws up at you prepared me to face my greatest fear – and put my absolute faith and trust and embrace that these drugs were giving me extra insurance and an opportunity to ensure I live a very long and healthy life.
Looking back, what was your greatest moment and the positive part of the experience?
Brenda: My greatest moment was spending time with family and friends who rallied around to be with me. The closeness that I felt with my loving husband, sons and parents in conjunction with my friends and their love gave me an overwhelming joy that I hadn’t appreciated like that before.
Michelle: The greatest moment was completing the treatment and realising that I had come through this incredible journey wiser, happier and really knowing what is truly important in life. Being alive and being well and healthy is very underrated; having a wonderful loving partner and family and supportive caring friends is the greatest wealth in life.
Having now had time to reflect, what did you learn about yourself and your strengths in the last 12 months?
Brenda: I’ve always known that I am a strong person, and I believed I would get through all the treatments. I am used to taking on tasks, fighting and following it through. What I have learnt is that i need to be kinder to myself. I need to set aside time for myself and spend quality time with those that I love.
I have delegated and share my responsibilities now, rather than trying to be the superwoman so many of us women try to be! I am a nurturer by nature and will do anything for those I love. I need to make sure I nurture me also.
Michelle: I have always been a very determined, strong and focused person, with an ability to find solutions to many complex issues. The many years I spent perfecting those skills were preparing me to face this challenge, and I was so grateful to have all of that knowledge to draw on.
I have learnt that change is the only constant thing in life, and the greater the change, the more you learn and grow as a person. I embrace every day as a gift, and I have gratitude for the abundance of love and support that I have around me.
I understand you would like to thank a few people who helped you through this?
Brenda: I have so many people to thank. My strength comes from my loving, super caring husband, my amazing mother and father, my now independent, resourceful sons, my distant but very close brother and sister, in addition to my dedicated East Coast Laser & Cosmetic Team – Michelle Dudley, Sheree Boyd-Smith, Olivia Boyd-Smith, Alison Kermeci, Vicky and Lindsay Bryant, Sue Knowles, Dr Bernard Beldholm, who all worked so hard in my absence and my special close friends. I must also thank the many caring clients and the wonderful 5 ladies who cooked meals for our family whilst I was ill from my chemotherapy. Also, the Oncology team at the Base Hospital were truly professional and supportive. Dr Lawrence Gluch should be commended on his breast reconstruction ability and exceptionally kind bedside manner.
Michelle: My loving husband, Michael, of 32 years was my rock! He was at my side during every appointment, every test and all my treatment – he was truly extraordinary and was so positive, telling me always, even when I was completely bald with no eyebrows or eye lashes, that I looked beautiful! My children, Camille and Jesse, were incredibly strong and so supportive and caring. My aunt and uncle, Sandra and Paul Jones were always there for me, cooking meals and sitting with me and bringing me beautiful lunches while I was having the chemotherapy.
My aunt, Margaret Fowler, and cousins Louise and Lenny Hannaford, and Sheryl and Tony Jones, and my wonderful friends Sonia McKie, Ingrid Moon and Louise Doig all gave me enormous support. My work colleagues and many of my clients sent flowers and beautiful cards with heartfelt messages. Margaret Bollard – worked so hard to keep me physically and spiritually well with Reiki. The doctors, staff and incredible volunteers at the cancer unit in Port Macquarie – Lorraine Chambers is my true hero, volunteering her time every week to provide support for those going through chemotherapy. THANK YOU ALL; I am eternally grateful.
Can you give us a bio about your life now?
Brenda: I am back to being a busy lady, loving my work with East Coast Laser & Cosmetic Clinic. I am working on new and exciting ventures for next year. I strive to be the best mother and wife as always, and I still strive to be the best person I can – but I have changed, and changed for the better!
My life is more balanced where healthy living is a big priority. I now work to create minimal stress in my life and not to worry about the small things. I like to surround myself with beautiful, positive people.
Michelle: My life is still full, and I will always be passionate, dedicated and committed to our business Percival Property, but I now take time to SMELL THE ROSES and I have a very healthy balance in my work/life.
What is your number one piece of advice to women regarding breast cancer.
Brenda: I cannot stress it enough, that women need to be in tune with their bodies, have regular breast checks; but also if you question your risk, ask for an ultrasound or mammogram as it is not always offered – even if you have to pay! It is worth the peace of mind.
Michelle: Make sure you have your regular check-ups – they can be lifesaving. By you leading the way, you will encourage your family to do so as well. Be kind and caring to yourself – you deserve it. If you don’t take care of your body, you will have no place to live!
Live in the moment, love your life, every single day is precious and we can learn so much even going through very tough events – sometimes we learn more.
Understand that we all have choices; make the choices that are right for you and be brave and honest with yourself, to decide that you deserve nothing less than the best.
Thank you to both Michelle and Brenda for sharing their personal stories.