They say there is safety in numbers, but in the case of three Kyabram District Health Service colleagues, it is more comfort than security they are finding in their shared journey with breast cancer.
Michelle Collier, one of the three women who have faced the daunting prospect of battling the disease in the last 18 months, offered a typically practical and positive point of view when she sat down with me to speak about her battle – along with Leonie Trevaskis and Amy Barker.
Michelle said “there has to be something good to come out of this”, referring to the potential for women to read about the experiences of the three since being diagnosed with the disease.
October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month and the three health professionals have chosen to share their stories in the hope of motivating women daunted by the screening process or “too busy’’ to take time for themselves to undergo the testing procedures and also to be a support for those in the community currently going through a similar journey.
Kyabram District Health Service (KDHS) will feature Facebook posts detailing the stories of the three at regular intervals during October, hoping to make women more aware of how they can be pro-active with their health.
At KDHS there are a variety of resources which are available to women who find themselves in a similar situation to the brave trio, including cancer resource nurse Lisa Priday. Lisa’s role incorporates supportive care, education for patients and families from the commencement of treatment, during chemotherapy and once they finish and enter the survivorship phase.
KDHS’ goal is to provide a welcoming, safe and supportive environment for their patients and to facilitate this as well as promote wellbeing, ongoing support and monitoring.
KDHS chief executive Anne McEvoy said KDHS was proud of its staff and their willingness to share these stories. “The staff’s selflessness to participate in this article shows how committed they are to encouraging other women to be proactive with their own health,” Ms McEvoy said.
Michelle Collier was the Facilities Manager and former aged care administrator at KDHS, with 14 years of healthcare experience, when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in July last year.
“After discovering a very small blood blister in March, I was referred for an ultrasound and mammogram, and then a biopsy of solid complex tumour in mid-April (which was completed in mid-May), but because the doctor I saw on the day had moved to another surgery I never received any results.”
“If it wasn’t for a persistent friend I probably wouldn’t have called them back for the results. As it was, it took me to early June, more concerned about my friend calling me again, to call for the results,” she said.
Michelle received news of the abnormal results of her biopsy over the phone, which came back “query carcinoma” having finally made a phone consult appointment with the practice.
“I was expecting it to be fine, but it wasn’t,” she said.
Only a month later she had a lumpectomy (a procedure to remove cancer or other abnormal tissue from the breast) and then in October had a mastectomy (surgical removal of breast tissue) and reconstructive surgery.
That was followed by a chemotherapy in November.
Her last round of chemo was in January this year.
“I work in health, but it doesn’t mean I have prioritised my own health. I hope to become not only that persistent friend that kept in contact with me, but hopefully an advocate for women to prioritise their health.”
“The whole experience has made me a lot more aware of being empathetic.”
“It is important to say something and check in on people. It can be a scary and lonely experience,” she said.
All three women went through their breast cancer treatment under COVID-19 conditions, which significantly added to the degree of difficulty for some of them.
“We couldn’t have anyone with us during appointments, often it was just being dropped off at the front door and left alone,” Amy Barker said.
Amy was no newcomer to breast cancer, having a family history of the disease, and from her early 20s had participated in regular screening procedures.
She has worked in payroll and medical records at the Health Service for the last seven years.
“It was end of June last year that my husband found the lump.
“I’d been good at getting check-ups I always did a yearly mammogram (an x-ray of the breast tissue that can find changes too small to be felt during a physical examination).
Amy was 39 when she was diagnosed with breast cancer.
She is still having chemo, having the triple negative type of breast cancer – an aggressive and difficult to treat variety of the disease.
“I didn’t realise there were different sorts of breast cancer and I went straight into chemo.“ she said.
Being workmates, Michelle, Amy and Leonie started sharing notes, along with tips and tricks they had found to be helpful during their treatment.
Their aim now is to help people who are going through a similar scenario.
“If we can be that support it would be terrific,” Michelle said.
While there is a support group in Shepparton, it did not meet during COVID and the three women supported one another by sharing information they had gathered along their own journey.
Leonie Trevaskis has worked at KDHS for 25 years and is the Client Services Manager.
“My partner found my lump in late September last year and in early October I went in for a mammogram, ultrasound and biopsies.
“It came back positive,” she said.
Leonie also has a strong family history of cancer on both sides of her family, with breast cancer affecting two aunties, a cousin and a grandmother.
She also carries the BRCA2 gene, inherited by her father – further increasing the likelihood that she could face a cancer battle of the breast, ovaries and pancreas in her life.
“An aunty on my father’s side, who also has the BRCA2 gene, has survived breast cancer. The chances for me getting breast cancer were probably high.” she said.
Leonie, with knowledge and advice from family and her support network, shaped her treatment choices. Her cancer didn’t spread to the lymph nodes (small lumps of tissue that contain white blood cells, which fight infection).
She had a lumpectomy in October 2021 followed by chemo and then a bilateral mastectomy with immediate reconstruction in April 2022.
Leonie also used the internet and social media as an education tool, gleaning a variety of information from forums on Facebook involving women from throughout the country sharing their breast cancer stories.
“A Facebook page of women who had been through or about to go through the same reconstruction procedure gave me a lot of information.” she said.
For Leonie and Michelle, the next five years will involve hormone therapy, consisting of monthly injections and daily tablets to block the production of estrogen and both are involved in a clinical trial for this treatment.
Both Amy and Leonie will also be having their ovaries removed.
They all agreed that having cancer during COVID had been a “double whack”.
“Because surgeries were being cancelled regularly I never knew whether it was going to go ahead or not.
“And just the loneliness of having to attend several appointments and treatments by myself due to COVID restrictions was also tough.” Michelle said.
The three all agreed that to have a support network in Kyabram would be an awesome outcome of them sharing their stories.
“I used a lot of online support, including the Look Good, Feel Good sessions, which teach women how to do make up when they lose their eye brows’’ Michelle said. All three women accessed these sessions.
Having access to a breast care nurse at Goulburn Valley was another major benefit for the three women. They were able to utilise the collaboration between GV Health and KDHS to avoid having to drive out of Kyabram by accessing the KDHS Oncology Department for hormone therapy injections and Chemotherapy. They were also able to see their Medical Oncologist through the KDHS Specialist Consulting Clinics.
“Whenever I could I would use the facilities here at Kyabram,” Leonie said.
District Nurses and the Urgent Care Centre at Kyabram helped with post-surgery treatment after the women had returned from the Peter MacCallum, Cabrini and St Vincent’s hospitals.
Michelle said the process of sharing her story had been “quite therapeutic’’ and she thought it was important to document her experiences for her children.
“I have a 17-year-old daughter and two sons, 21 and 24-years-old.
“Initially I didn’t tell my family as I wanted to protect them. Now I see it as important that I provide them with the medical information and family history and empower them to be proactive in prioritising and advocating for their own health.” she said.
Leonie was already seven A4 pages in to her story when I met with the trio last week and also sees it as important for her 14 and 17-year-old boys – along with her brother and sister as they have a 50% change of having the BRCA2 gene.
Amy is a mother of three, two daughters aged 14 and 13 and an 11-year-old son.
The stories of how the three women, from similar working environments, all took different routes in their breast cancer journey are certain to not only give people an insight into the disease – but also create important conversation about preventative measures and what services are on offer in the region.
To contact the Cancer Resource Nurse, Lisa Priday, please email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 03 5857 0298.
To read more about Michelle, Amy and Leonie’s breast cancer journeys, keep an eye out on the KDHS website where the full story will be available throughout October.