Wednesday, December 6, 2023

‘I Got Breast Cancer on My OE’

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Phoebe Roche was forced to cut her OE short and move home to Palmerston North in 2017 when she learnt she had breast cancer, at the age of 29. Five years on, after going through multiple surgeries, chemotherapy and radiation treatment, Phoebe’s speaking out about how the diagnosis has changed her life in positive ways, and to highlight how breast cancer doesn’t just affect older women.

I was living in London, working as an in-house physiotherapist for a big law firm, when I found the lump. I wasn’t too concerned. I thought it might’ve just been something hormonal but I knew I should get it checked out, so I went to my GP. The doctor thought it was worth investigating and I was referred to a breast specialist. I had an ultrasound and biopsy, which confirmed I had DCIS.

At each point they all assured me it wouldn’t be anything. When I was given the diagnosis, the specialist was quite upset because nothing had pointed towards it. I have no family history and was otherwise young, fit and healthy. I feel pretty lucky that I was taken seriously and that I did something about the lump when I found it.

The initial plan for treatment was a wide local excision followed by radiotherapy. But after the surgery they realised the cancer was much more invasive than had shown in the biopsy, plus they didn’t get clear margins. So I went back for re-excision, sentinel node biopsy and then full axillary clearance. Cancer was found in my lymph nodes and I needed chemotherapy, so at that point I decided to move home to New Zealand to be closer to my family.

This decision threw quite a spanner in the works. I was feeling really settled in London – I’d been there for two years already and was two months into a new three-year visa. I thought I’d be able to manage treatment in London and I was lucky to have my mum and brother fly over for my surgeries. But I had a pretty rough time with the surgeries – I ended up with a nasty infection and a seroma, and I had to be on antibiotics for a couple of months.

I didn’t want cancer to dictate what I was doing, but eventually I came round to the idea that moving home made sense. Because of my age I was offered fertility treatment and that’s when it all started getting overwhelming. That helped me to prioritise what was important and I realised being closer to my family would reduce the stress in an already stressful situation.

I got back to NZ in December, after having one operation in September and another in October. I was lucky that a family friend is a surgeon working at the hospital so he was able to arrange my transfer of care from London. The day I got home, I had appointments with a surgeon and oncologist, and started chemo the next week.

I faced six rounds of chemo, four weeks of radiation, and have been on tamoxifen for the last five years. I think I got off pretty lightly with these treatments as the side effects haven’t been too bad. The chemo was what I expected, pretty rough towards the end but knowing now what some others have gone through, mine could’ve been much worse. With radiation I only had a mild skin reaction and no fatigue. And although tamoxifen started off badly, it’s better now and I only get joint aches and hot flushes from time to time.

The diagnosis has changed my life, but largely for the good. It’s definitely given me more purpose, especially to do with work. While I was going through chemo, I did some specialist training to become a cancer rehab physio and now I deliver the Pinc and Steel courses helping people with their physical rehabilitation after cancer. I’m also a certified lymphoedema specialist. I’ve gone in a direction that I probably wouldn’t have considered if I didn’t go through breast cancer, so that’s one positive that’s come out of this.

When you’re going through treatment you kind of know what you need to be doing at each step, so you go, “Ok, so I get through this and then I have to do that.” I found it was finishing treatment where I struggled the most. When you’re going through it, it’s all-consuming and then once you’re done, you can feel a bit lost. It took me a few years to figure out that cancer was something I’d been through, but it didn’t define me. I’m feeling great now though, really enjoying work and being back in Palmerston North.

What’s helped me the most to get through it all has been talking about it. It’s how I processed everything and it meant others understood what I was going through, so they could better support me. I know everyone is different, and I know young people can be fiercely independent and not want to ask for help. But my best advice would be to keep your friends and family involved and let them help you.

Getting to know your breasts and what’s normal and doing regular self-checks is something I’m quite vocal about now – everyone should be doing it, especially younger women who can’t go for screening. I’d always been good about going for cervical smears but breast cancer was never on my radar at all. I didn’t think it was a young person’s cancer.

Never at any point was I concerned about whether I would survive or not because I was told breast cancer is treatable when it’s picked up early, and I did something about my lump quickly. Now I want to spread that message that it’s so important to go and get anything that you’re worried about checked. You won’t be wasting anyone’s time by looking at it.

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