Breast cancer real lives
Cheryl Grant was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1999 at the age of 48. Although she had enjoyed good health until that point, on her GP’s advice Cheryl had yearly mammograms from the age of 40.
Cheryl’s mother and maternal grandmother had died of unknown cancers. Her mother died when Cheryl was still a baby and with her father on the road as a commercial traveller, she and her older sister were sent to live in different homes.
‘At the time of my diagnosis I was feeling fine. I was working full-time, juggling being a wife and mother to two sons, aged eight and 14. Even after I was diagnosed I still felt well.’
Cheryl had surgery to remove the tumour and associated lymph nodes, followed by chemotherapy with three different drugs as part of a clinical trial, radiotherapy, and finally eight years of hormone therapy. She coped with losing her hair, but found the nausea challenging.
‘My husband was very supportive and accompanied me to treatment sessions, but beneath the brave exterior he was devastated and worried. Often it’s the carers who have a more difficult time as they have to care for the person being treated, as well as taking a lead role in managing the family.
‘My older son picked up immediately that something was amiss, so we told him the truth. Fortunately, my younger son seemed less aware, but he did say that he didn’t want me to be bald for his birthday sleepover – so the wig came out for that.”
Later Cheryl opted for bilateral mastectomies and breast reconstruction, a big procedure with a long recovery period.
‘Health-wise, so far I’m on track. My plan is to dance disgracefully at my younger son’s 50th birthday party in 2040!
‘Personally, I’d like to see cancer research deliver better knowledge of the risk factors for breast cancer and better diagnostic and predictive tests. I’m so impressed with Garvan researchers; they are so passionate and determined to find answers. They work at the cutting edge of cancer research, and their research always relates to outcomes for patients.’
In July 2008 Isabelle Shapiro’s world changed forever. At 57, her health was excellent, she exercised regularly and had a healthy diet. At a routine screening, however, Isabelle was diagnosed with early stage breast cancer.
Isabelle was Deputy Mayor of Woollahra at the time and facing re-election. She was also a busy wife, mother and grandmother, constantly on the go.
‘I thought I was strong and could handle it, but clearly I couldn’t. I was in shock and completely numb.’
There was surgery to remove the tumour, but unfortunately because the cancer was more widespread, Isabelle had to have a mastectomy. ‘The election campaign was launched two weeks later and I agonised about appearing in public flat-chested.
‘This was a terrible time for my whole family. My elderly parents were devastated, my husband and adult children were wonderfully supportive, but I knew they were worried. In particular my husband needed reassurance that I would be okay.’
Isabelle was re-elected as a Councillor and as Deputy Mayor, but as soon as the election was over she began five weeks of daily radiotherapy, along with aromatase inhibitor treatment which lasted for five years.
‘The radiotherapy caused exhaustion unlike anything I had ever experienced, coupled with severe burning to my chest.
‘Although we don’t have the BRCA gene, I have a strong family history of breast cancer on my maternal side. I just pray that my daughter Joanne and my three granddaughters don’t have to face the same challenges when they get to my age.’
Isabelle has since opted to remove the remaining breast to reduce her risk of recurrence and have reconstructive surgery.
‘I now feel wonderful and enjoy life more than ever. I am now probably the fittest I have ever been, but I still have six-monthly breast checks.
‘Research undertaken at Garvan, especially in genetic predisposition, is particularly important for me with my strong family history, and Garvan’s genome sequencing capacity holds great promise for a better understanding of that risk. As my cancer was estrogen positive, I’m also very keen to see Garvan’s progress in research on resistance to anti-estrogen drugs.’