A diagnosis of breast cancer is devastating. A diagnosis of metastatic breast cancer – it’s hard for most of us to even comprehend how you cope with that. That is what Michelle had to face.
Metastatic breast cancer is breast cancer that has spread beyond the breast and nearby lymph nodes to other parts of the body (most often the bones, lungs, liver or brain). Although metastatic breast cancer has spread to another part of the body, it’s still breast cancer and treated as breast cancer.* Michelle was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer in November 2014.
“I remember sitting in the consulting room with the breast surgeon who was saying a lot that my mind was not comprehending. He left the room for a moment and I turned to ask the breast nurse “Do I have breast cancer?” she just nodded her head.
She was diagnosed with stage four breast cancer. There is no stage five. The diagnosis was devastating and when she asked the doctors the inevitable question of: ‘how long?’ The response was, “How long is a piece of string?” Not a response that she was expecting – or that gave her any time frame that she could work with. It was incredibly difficult to deal with.
“It took some time but I have come to the realization that even the oncologists are still crystal ball gazing. Their aim is just to keep me as well as they can for as long as they can,” said Michelle.
Originally from Perth, Michelle was living in Sydney with her husband Wayne when she received her fateful news. The couple had moved around a lot with Wayne’s army career so their grown-up children were scattered around the country. She felt lost, lonely and frightened. All she wanted was to have her friends and family near, to hug her grandchildren and make the most of every moment. Wayne applied and was granted a transfer to Perth. Michelle’s daughter Marissa and her husband also made the decision to move from Townsville to Perth so the family gathered together for one big road trip and arrived just before Christmas 2015.
Before they left to drive across the Nullabor back to Perth, Michelle reached out to Breast Cancer Care WA. She spoke with Karen Spriggs who, at the time, was the only Metastatic Breast Care Nurses in the state. Karen told her to ring whenever she had reception during the trip. Over the next 2 weeks, they spoke many times and when Michelle and her husband arrived in Perth Karen came over with a lovely gift basket to welcome her.
From there she joined the Metastatic Support Group and has gone on to be a fantastic supporter of Breast Cancer Care WA and ambassador for breast cancer, speaking to business and community groups, including medical students at Curtin University.
“I want people to know that the same number of people are dying of breast cancer. We may be living longer, but we are still dying,” said Michelle. “It’s important for people not to become blasé about the ‘pink thing’. Please take the time to check your breasts, become familiar with them and report anything that may be unusual. Trust your instincts, if you think something isn’t right, keep asking questions until you are satisfied.
“And if you know someone facing breast cancer, be gentle and be careful with your words. If they are metastatic that are not going to be cured. They may have good days but you might not see the struggle behind that. I get comments like ‘You look so well,’ or ‘I know how you feel’ and it’s so frustrating,” said Michelle. “That’s one of the things I talk about with the medical students – how to break the news about cancer. Doing it the right way, face-to-face, and making sure they have a support person with them.”
There are so many challenges with having metastatic breast cancer and it’s not just the medical ones. “I’m never going to retire and go travelling. Financially it’s difficult, going from two wages to one and having to face all the medical costs. Surgery and treatments are difficult and it takes so long to recover. But it has also changed my perspective. I don’t sweat the small stuff anymore. I used to want everything correct and in place but now I’m more flexible and calm. I don’t get rattled. Nothing phases me.”
Michelle is now working and studying. She is studying to be an assistant in nursing and works in aged care. She hopes to eventually work in palliative care.
“Knowing that I will leave this earth before I am truly ready makes everything that I want to achieve so urgent,” Michelle says. “I want to tell everyone, celebrate all that life has to offer. You never know what the future holds.”
If you or someone you know is diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer and would like to access our services, just contact the office on 9324 3703. All our services are provided free of charge for all West Australians.