This month sees every conceivable product draped in pink in order to raise funds for the most common cancer among Australian women. It is estimated that this year alone, almost 15,000 women will be given the devastating diagnosis. If the goal of this month is to raise awareness about detection and a possible cure, then what is the impact of all that pink on the women living with this diagnosis, both during and post-treatment?
Michelle Smith was 43 when she was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer in her right breast. The mammogram and subsequent ultrasound found 5 lumps in the otherwise healthy mum of 2. Michelle had no family history or symptoms of the disease yet somehow, she found herself sitting in her Doctor’s office hearing the unimaginable.
‘I felt instant fear but he was very straight forward. He looked at me and said “they think its cancer”. I was by myself with my one year old sitting on my lap’.
In the almost 12 months since finishing chemotherapy Michelle’s hair has slowly returned, her body has recovered from the cocktail of drugs she had to consume and her mindset has shifted from the haze of treatment to the positivity of her future.
Michelle doesn’t feel that she has had to work through the fear of what the future may bring because from the moment of diagnosis she thought of the cancer as something external to herself. She saw it as something that had to be removed. As the principal of a Dance school in the hills district of Sydney, she acknowledges that despite the fact that her career focused heavily on image. Losing a breast had to be inconsequential. Instead, her focus became fixed on what needed to be done.
‘I thought I’d have to cope with the mental side of not having a breast but because I had such a good surgeon there wasn’t so much of a focus on the physical sides, its helped me deal with it. You do cope’
In those first few weeks after the mastectomy she joined a support group for women living with cancer at a Sydney Hospital. The main challenge for Michelle upon entering the group was realising she was the youngest women present. ‘I looked around and thought, hang on where is Kylie Minogue? Where are all the young women that look like me?’
It wasn’t until later, through the creation of a Facebook group, that she began to connect with women from her own age bracket. This was pivotal in feeling connected to a community of people that understood what it meant to be walking the path of cancer at a relatively young age.
For Michelle, the month of October is not a time where she finds the focus on breast cancer too close to home but she is mindful that this might change over time. ‘I think a lot of survivors would find it hard, it’s still relatively new to me so I’m still passionate about it. I feel drawn to it because I’ve been part of it’. When people are faced with a life challenge they go in one of two directions – some tend to curl in and shield themselves while others look outwards to see how the new insights affect the way they see the world.
Walking through her local shopping centre the other day Michelle spotted a woman in her 30s. The woman was pushing a trolley and pulling at a pink scarf to cover her head, a head that looked like it had only recently lost its hair. She questioned whether or not she should turn away but felt drawn to speak to her. ‘I moved up next to the woman, smiled at her and told her “I’ve been there, I’ve done that and your hair does come back.” I felt chuffed that I could reach out to someone even though I probably frightened her!’
Breast Cancer awareness month isn’t just about the women yet to be diagnosed, or the ones that fought hard but succumbed, it’s also for the women who understand that there is a whole life still to be lived beyond that moment when a doctor leans across a desk and utters a word beginning with C.
For more information or support visit www.nbcf.org.au