Breast cancer is the second most commonly diagnosed cancer in Australia, affecting so many of us each and every day. Its incidence has been increasing over the past couple of decades, with 1 in 7 Australian women and 1 in 600 Australian men expected to be diagnosed within their lifetime. This is why awareness and your support is more than important than ever.
This October, we sat down with breast cancer survivor and NAK Hair team member Rachael Brooks-Donald to discuss her journey and the importance of early detection.
We adore working with you here at NAK Hair. Please share a bit about yourself for those aren’t lucky enough to know you:
I’m a single Mum to my 9-year-old son Seth, and also two feline fur babies Chico & Miss Marbles. I joined the NAK Accounts team in November 2021 and feel like I have finally found my people. I have always loved NAK products, so to be part of the team is very exciting for me. In my free time I love gardening, reading & pilates. Spending time in the garden is very therapeutic for me and I have developed a succulent addiction of late, with over 100 plants and my collection is still growing.
Can you please tell us how your diagnosis came to be:
I would periodically self-check as I had followed the tragic story of Connie Johnson. In November 2019 I did what I thought would be a “ quick self-check “ in the shower. I honestly was just expecting to have a quick feel around and get on with my day. I was actually getting ready to go on a first date!! I felt a firm pea size lump at the base of my right breast and all the breath went out of me. I thought, nah this isn’t happening, it’s just hormonal, it’s nothing. I checked again daily for about the next week and nothing had changed. I was still of course in denial with many thoughts running through my mind “I’m too young”, “I’m only 35, we don’t have history of Breast Cancer in the family”, “I am super fit and healthy, it wouldn’t be cancer”. I saw my parents on the Sunday (a week from finding the lump) and my Step Mum read me the riot act and made me call the GP on the spot to get an appointment for the Monday. At that appointment my GP confirmed she could feel the same and that it did feel like it was more than just a cyst and wrote up referrals for a Mammogram, Ultrasound & Fine Needle Biopsy. By the Thursday I was having all these screenings done. The Mammogram confirmed the lump that could be felt, however the Ultrasound following revealed a second lump. A lump that was so far back on my chest wall that it didn’t show on the Mammogram and could not be felt during the breast examination. Imagine if that had been my only lump – how long until it grew big enough to actually be felt? What stage would my cancer have been by then? I was so grateful for that sonographer. It meant in few days time I would be diagnosed at Stage 1, instead of much worse. The fine needle biopsies were taken and then began the most excruciating wait of my life. Four days later, a total of 2 weeks since finding the lump, on the 9th December 2019 I was diagnosed with Stage 1 HER2 Positive Metastatic Breast Cancer. A date that is etched into my history forevermore.
What age were you when you were diagnosed?
I was diagnosed at 35, well under the “40 year” benchmark for regular mammograms
Can you please share with us your treatment journey:
My treatment involved five months of chemotherapy consisting of two separate drugs which commenced on 3rd January 2020. Firstly was four fortnightly rounds of what is known in the cancer world as “the red devil” because it is a nasty bag of red poison. Followed by a second chemotherapy drug weekly for 12 weeks. This drug was supposed to be gentler but also has a risk of more side effects. Unfortunately, I was one of the lucky ones who experienced a lot of those side effects including neuropathy in my fingers and toes, an eye infection, and neutropenia which resulted in me being hospitalised in isolation for two weeks, including not seeing my son other than via facetime. Once I was strong enough, I was then able to start my next treatment.
In the meantime, I was able to have my surgery. I was lucky enough to have had excellent results with my chemo treatment which meant one tumour had completely dissolved and the second had shrunk. This meant I could undergo “breast conserving surgery or lumpectomy” instead of a full mastectomy. I also had my sentinel lymph node taken and it tested clear, which meant the cancer appeared to have not spread anywhere else in my body.
In August 2020 I commenced my five weeks of radiation. It is painless at first, but the fatigue is real and by the end of the treatment my skin was so burnt I couldn’t wear a bra for three months.
By September 2020 I started the long term medication to prevent the return of the cancer. However, in January 2022 I was admitted back into hospital with a blood clot in each lung as a result of the medication. We reassessed my course of treatment as I was not able to go back on that drug. The alternatives unfortunately cause me too many negative side affects, so after meeting with my oncologist last week we have agreed for me to no longer be on any long-term medications and I have a “less than 10%” chance of recurrence. I am very happy with that statistic.
Who was your biggest rock/support during treatment?
There isn’t one person, but a whole village. Being on my own, my parents and brother really stepped in to help look after Seth during the whole treatment. My girlfriends sent care packs (COVID times so visits were limited), meals, and even organised a dishwasher for my house. My neighbour mowed my lawn. Other friends were my drivers to and from hospital. My sister, Erica, was a huge support. She works in cancer care, in haematology, so while breast cancer is not her area, she was able to translate all the medical terms I didn’t understand and came to all my Oncology appointments. There are so many people in my village, I am forever grateful for every single one of them.
What would you like people to know about the nurses and doctors that treated you?
I had my treatment through the Mater public system. The nurses, administration staff & especially volunteers who work in the Mater Cancer Care Centre (MCCC) at South Brisbane are some of the kindest people I have ever met. They have an extremely tough job interacting with cancer patients on a daily basis, some of whom are terminally ill. Each and every one of the staff who looked after me at that hospital did it with such compassion that when I finished my treatment, I found that I missed my Friday appointments because I missed seeing those people. They have had such an impact on me personally, that I look forward to being able to volunteer at the MCCC down the track and give back some of my time.
You are such an incredible advocate for awareness and breast checks with all your colleagues. What is the main message you would like to share with people reading this?
Being Breast Aware is all I ask. Early detection saves lives! I will scream it from the rooftops for all women, and men, to be breast aware. I cannot stop someone getting Breast Cancer, but I can help with early detection if my message means someone finds a lump and is diagnosed in the early stages, instead of Stage 4. Please do not think that you are untouchable if you are under 40 or don’t have family history of breast cancer. That is no longer the case. 1 in 7 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer this year. It was 1 in 8 women when I was diagnosed in 2019. “Feel Them On The First” is a worldwide campaign. So please, check your boobs on the first of the month, and if there are any abnormalities, please see your GP.
What are your hopes for the future of breast cancer awareness and treatment?
I honestly wish the medical sector would abolish the Age 40 threshold for annual mammograms. I hope the funding into research will prove that there are many more younger women being diagnosed each year for them to open it to all women. Also, an Ultrasound should become a standard step in all breast screening. It is the only thing that detected my second tumour. Educating young women, as young as high school age, 16 or 17, how to self-check would be so beneficial. There are so many women who don’t know how to correctly self-check.
Please tell us about the charities that you would like to bring awareness to:
While there are so many holistic charities supporting women with breast cancer, one in particular is close to my heart. Personally, the Mater Chicks in Pink helped me so much during my breast cancer journey. They covered out-of-pocket medical expenses, arranged for me to have my radiation treatment at a clinic close to home and provided regular phone check-ins for myself and my family.
Learn more about Breast Cancer Awareness Month
Learn more about Mater Chicks in Pink
Learn more about Breast Cancer Network Australia