Sarah was the 600th patient to ring the celebration end-of-treatment bell in Chris O’Brien Lifehouse radiation therapy department. But she had bells of different kind – wedding bells – on her mind when she was diagnosed with breast cancer earlier this year.
Sarah was only weeks away from her wedding when she found the lump. “I definitely didn’t think it was breast cancer. I had no family history, I was young – compared to the average age of women diagnosis, I’d run marathons, and I loved kale.”
Her fiancé, Alistair, suggested she visit the GP for peace of mind. “My GP told me that lots of young women get small lumps that are usually nothing to worry about, but that I should get an ultrasound just in case.”
When the phone call came confirming that it was breast cancer, Sarah did not initially understand. “We were away in Melbourne at the time when my GP called to give me the results. It was all quite surreal – I was sitting on a tram being told it was invasive ductal carcinoma with positive receptors and that my GP would make an appointment for me to see a surgeon the day I got back to Sydney. I had no idea what a ‘ductal carcinoma’ was! At the end of the call, I asked: ‘so, does this mean it’s bad?’ She said: ‘Yes, it means it’s cancer’.”
Since then, she has become all too familiar with the language surrounding a cancer diagnosis and treatment. “Phrases like ‘sentinel nodes’, ‘BRCA genes’ and ‘surgical margins’ are a foreign language until you find yourself in that world.”
Sarah underwent surgery five days after her diagnosis and healed in time for her wedding which went ahead as planned six weeks later.
Only days before the wedding she received an unexpected test result which meant that the benefits of chemotherapy would not outweigh the side effects. And so, instead of jetting off on honeymoon, she plunged straight in to six weeks of daily radiation therapy. And at the end of May, Sarah rang the bell heralding the end of her treatment.
Ringing a bell at the end of radiation therapy treatment is a widespread tradition around the world. The bell is rung to mark the end of a treatment for a cancer patient and the beginning of a new life.
For women like Sarah who have been diagnosed with receptor positive breast cancer, treatment doesn’t end there. But as she says, “You’ve got to celebrate the small victories.”
She now has journeys of another kind on her mind. She recently started a new job as a Government lawyer, and is looking forward to a belated honeymoon to California and New York later in the year. She and her husband will make the trip to Sri Lanka, their original honeymoon destination, to celebrate their first anniversary next year.
Today Sarah is as comfortable talking about breasts as she is about brunch and hopes that sharing her experience will serve as a reminder of the importance of self-checks. “Don’t think you’re too young, you’re too fit, your genes are too good, or you’re too busy.”