Rebecca Angus was 33 years old when she found a lump. She was breast-feeding her 11-month-old son at the time and assumed it was mastitis, which often comes hand-in-and with breastfeeding and causes the breast tissue to become painful and inflamed. Just to be sure Rebecca went straight to her GP to get it checked out.
She was diagnosed with breast cancer within 24 hours. Her treatment began the next week.
As a breast cancer survivor, Rebecca now dedicates much of her time to raising awareness about breast health and empowering young women to become breast aware. She will be joining a panel of experts for a live Q&A event on September 30 hosted by Breast Cancer Trials. We sat down with Rebecca ahead of the event to find out more about her journey and what life looks like in remission.
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What has been your biggest discovery about yourself since your diagnosis and since being in remission?
A lot of the time, with cancer, you feel out of control and there are so many changes and challenges. I have learned what is essential in life: to appreciate the small things—the importance of spending time with the people you love.
It is ok to acknowledge that you struggle with acceptance or specific aspects of a cancer diagnosis or treatment. This is normal! I have acknowledged that I am not a superwoman and need to ask for help.
But I am not brave for being diagnosed with cancer.
I have always been a pretty determined person. Nevertheless, cancer makes you more resilient as you have no other choice.
I have learnt to be kinder to myself, my mind and my body image. I do not take my health for granted anymore and feel it is a gift to grow old gracefully.
Being proactive with my health care has helped me be my best advocate by learning more about my diagnosis, disease and treatment. I want to be involved and more confident to ask questions.
How can we support our loved ones and friends who are going through breast cancer?
Cancer treatment goes beyond ringing the bell in the chemotherapy ward, and it is essential to acknowledge the impact on breast cancer patients’ lives long term. Breast Cancer can test relationships with friends and family — some people may find a cancer diagnosis confronting. But it’s better to address the elephant in the room and not ignore it. Being silent is exceptionally hurtful.
It is about acknowledging the difficulties they are facing and using sensitive and appropriate language. Ask them how you can help them and take the time to understand their treatment and how they are feeling. It could be cooking a meal, providing child care, or just being someone ready to listen with a coffee.
Whatever you do, don’t give breast cancer patients stories of other people with cancer who are deceased or unsolicited health advice about their treatment. People can be very well-meaning, but please leave it to the experts. Everyone’s breast cancer is different, and their treatment is unique to that specific individual.
Have you experienced any long-term effects from your treatment and how have you dealt with these?
Overall, I have a good quality of life post my treatment and I am so grateful for the efforts of my team who essentially saved my life and they continue to guide me through the different stages of treatment. The team at Breast Cancer Trials has also played a pivotal role in improving the outcome for me and many other women within Her 2 positive breast cancer, the Hera trial, and the development of Herceptin.
Yes, I have experienced long term side effects from my treatment — I certainly did not think I would be in menopause in my 30’s.
I have had many side effects during my treatment, including neutropenia, allergic reactions and much more.
- Medically induced menopause
- Loss of sensation in my left breast
- Hot flashes
- Vaginal dryness
- Low libido
- Post-traumatic stress
- Fertility issues
- Anemia and fatigue
I continue my ovarian suppression Zoladex and Tamoxifen as part of my long term recovery, as demonstrated in the TEXT and SOFT Trials from Breast Cancer Trials, which showed the importance of ovarian suppression long term for premenopausal women.
Although not ideal, I have accepted these side effects are part of my treatment and something I have to live with long term if I want to continue to improve my progression-free survival and overall survival of breast cancer. I try to be as proactive as possible and seek medical advice when needed. I have access to many different specialists.
Breast Cancer Trials develop life-saving medication for breast cancer consumers to improve overall outcomes and enhance the quality of life of breast cancer consumers. If women live longer due to their breast cancer treatment, we need to continue researching to reduce or omit women from these long-term side effects.
How have you spoken about your breast cancer with your son?
At the time I was diagnosed, my son was not even 12 months old so the initial discussion wasn’t necessary. I just wanted to ensure that he had as much normality during my treatment and beyond. He was in full-time care throughout my treatment and is now a very well adjusted, happy boy, and he gives me so much joy. I would never want to burden him with my breast cancer diagnosis, treatment and prognosis.
He has attended some of my minor procedures and medical appointments. He has met all my specialists, doctors and nurses over the years. He loves pretending to be a doctor.
He knows mummy was sick and lost her hair, but that the doctors made her better.
I want to be as honest as I can with him in language and concepts which are age-appropriate.
What advice would you give to other women about breast health?
- 1 in 7 women are diagnosed with breast cancer. You are never too young to get breast cancer.
- Your breast health is vital at any age or stage. Do not delay seeking medical help if you have symptoms. Especially at the moment during the pandemic.
- Examine your breast regularly. you need to become familiar with your breasts.
- It is crucial to identify your breast cancer risk with Breast Cancer Trials iPrevent risk prevention tool – www.breastcancertrials.org.au/iprevent
- If you meet the requirement of breast screening, do not delay your routine mammograms.
- If you have a family history of breast cancer, it is essential to discuss this with your general practitioner.
- If you notice any changes to your breast, seek medical help.This includes a palpable lump; pain or tenderness in the armpit or breast; changes to the breast shape or size; changes to the nipple or nipple discharge/ bleeding; skin changes around the breast. Ask for—referral for an ultrasound, mammogram or breast MRI.
- If you are concerned with the advice, you are given, seek a second opinion.
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Want to learn more about breast cancer and Rebecca’s journey? Join the Breast Cancer Trials online Q&A on Thursday September 30 at 5pm. The free event will be moderated by Annabel Crabb and features a panel of experts and survivors to answer all your questions about breast cancer and bring the discussion out of the shadows. Register for the Let’s Talk About Sex Q&A here.