Rachel's story

I sit here thinking back to where I was and what I was doing this time last year … my how things have changed! For one I had two healthy boobs (or so I thought) and was working hard in my full-time position as a Level 3 Teacher. Although I don’t have children I was always busy, you could say that multi-tasking was my middle name. I was fit and healthy (or so I thought) and training up to six times a week for the TriPink triathlon to raise money for breast cancer. The irony in then being diagnosed with breast cancer myself in January 2012 was just devastating. With no immediate family history, this silent disease presented little in the way of symptoms. I was unaware of a lump or problem until my right nipple began puckering and my breast became tender while soaking up the sunshine and holidaying with my in-laws in Bateman’s Bay NSW. No more than a week later my GP was referring me to a breast specialist whom I saw the same day, followed by the routine scans and biopsies and viola ... I had been diagnosed with invasive lobular breast cancer at the ripe old age of 35. A skin-sparing bilateral mastectomy was soon to follow, as was six months of chemotherapy, twenty-five days of radiation therapy and I have now begun my five years of Tamoxifen. 

On diagnosis I was unable to think about what having breast cancer meant to me for at least a couple of weeks. When I did, the lump in my throat enlarged and I felt ill in the stomach. Pre breast cancer I would feel queasy at the drop of blood or an open cut! How was I now supposed to get through a mastectomy, chemotherapy, radiation and an unknown prognosis? Well it is amazing what you can do when you have to. I have stumbled across this anonymous quote many times during my journey and it rings true for me on so many levels.

You never know how strong you are, until being strong is the only choice you have

This strength includes being physically strong to endure the treatment, intellectually strong to comprehend the process you are being forced to go through and emotionally strong to endure the loss of hair, change in appearance and the immense sorrow you feel at the thought of your loved ones losing you. Not to mention the incredible fear that grows inside of you that this stinking disease just may come back and bite you on the bum!

Now, nearly one month free from invasive treatment I can proudly say I have survived this multi-faceted journey through humour and honesty. From jokes relating to perky boobs when I’m sixty, to the pros and cons of being hair-free, I have found a funny side to everything and have recorded my trials and tribulations in the form of a blog (http://www.rachelcusack.blogspot.com.au).   

Going ‘public’ about having breast cancer was the best thing I could have done, it opened me to support and understanding from family and friends. Beyond the jokes and being open and honest through my writing, there was Breast Cancer Care WA (BCCWA). My initial contact began with my breast care nurse Heather, who entertained the silliest questions imaginable and made resources like information on fertility available to me when necessary. My support group - the young and the breastless -  facilitated by BCCWA also played and still plays an important role for me. It is my favourite place to be on every second Monday of the month. We bring food, swap organic recipes, talk sex and everything breast cancer.

I had the opportunity to travel to Sydney with four members just recently to attend Breast Cancer Network Australia’s Strength to Strength Conference and feel honoured to have met such an inspirational group of ladies. I’ve also had the pleasure of experiencing sheer indulgence and relaxation at a BCCWA Pamper Day. I have collaboratively planned and held a fundraiser with the help of Deida from BCCWA and have received one-on-one counselling with Cathie when the going got extra tough. The library within BCCWA has been a wealth of information and knowledge on breast cancer which I have frequented several times over the last few months trying to find answers!! In the end I have realised there are little answers out there to explain why I got breast cancer and what my prognosis is likely to be. But to put it simply, the ranging types of support from BCCWA and the networking it creates has equipped me with strategies in self-awareness and mindfulness to deal with these fears. I now have the confidence to face them head on and create for myself a ‘new’ healthy, cancer-free version of NORMAL. The journey is really only just the beginning and I’m excited about what my future holds.