It took three types of chemotherapy to treat what could have easily been dismissed as a blocked milk duct.
If Kate Mahon hadn’t had a family history of breast cancer, she would have assumed the lump on her breast was just a blocked milk duct. She was only 38 and had recently finished breastfeeding her one-year-old son, Tom. But her sister had been diagnosed a decade earlier at just 28 and Kate wasn’t taking any chances. Her annual breast check was due in a month, but she didn’t wait to see the GP, who sent her off for an ultrasound and mammogram two days later.
“The specialist gave me a look that told me things weren’t good. I tried to stay calm. A biopsy was arranged for the next day,” she says.
Although Kate was vigilant about checking her breasts, being diagnosed at such a young age was devastating for her. “I felt fit and healthy and our beautiful little boy had just started walking,” says Kate. “I was planning to go back to work after being on maternity leave for 12 months and my husband and I were making plans about our future, which have had to be put on hold.”
“As a young woman, I had to face a unique set of challenges. There were fertility issues and we decided to do IVF before chemotherapy to protect our chance of having more children. Chemotherapy meant my body went through a chemical menopause, and I am on estrogen blocking tablets now. The fatigue, low energy and aching joints do not make me feel like a ‘young’ woman at all.”
“I had to face some very dark fears on my own. Somehow, I found an inner strength to get me through.”
Kate and her husband, Ben, had just moved back to Ballarat from Melbourne, so Kate had family support nearby, which she needed because her HER2 cancer required three types of chemotherapy.
Kate’s treatment initially started with four rounds of AC and 12 rounds of Taxol. She also had Herceptin every three weeks for 12 months. After Kate’s post-surgery pathology report showed some residual cancer, she is now having a different type of chemo, TDM1-1.
During her treatment, Kate tried to be as positive as she could around her son, Tom. But even at such a young age, Tom was very perceptive. “When I came home after being away for surgery, he snuggled in really close and gave me the biggest hug. He wouldn’t let me go for what felt like minutes and he (like any toddler) rarely sits still,” says Kate. “Some days the fatigue is so intense, but he’s my little motivator who keeps me moving.”
Kate also relied on her McGrath Breast Care Nurse, Joylene Fletcher, to help her through treatment.
“Although she couldn’t meet me in person because of Covid, she said she was just on the other end of the phone to explain things, answer questions or just to chat. It helped me feel much more at ease,” Kate says.
Cancer treatment is never easy, but it was especially difficult during Covid-19 restrictions in Victoria.
“The hardest thing for me was not being able to have a support person with me during chemo. Kate says. “I had to face some very dark fears on my own. Somehow, I found an inner strength to get me through.”
Restrictions in Victoria eased five months after Kate’s diagnosis, which is when she got to meet Joylene.
“It was so nice to finally meet her face-to-face. You can only do so much over the phone,” Kate says. “You pick up a lot of emotions when you’re looking at someone, so being with Joylene in person made things more personal.”
"Without her I think it would be a lot scarier, more confusing and overwhelming. I’d feel more alone."
“Sometimes I just felt a bit flat and over it all and Joylene would have a way of encouraging me and lifting me up. She is a very positive, compassionate person and understands what it’s like to be a wife and a mother,” Kate says.
“Without her I think it would be a lot scarier, more confusing and overwhelming. I’d feel more alone. It’s a very frightening time but it would be a lot more frightening if I didn’t have Joylene to talk things over with. She really has made a massive difference.”
While all McGrath Breast Care Nurses are vital in helping patients through treatment, what makes Joylene’s position extra special is that it is funded by the proceeds raised from Dry July.
“I want to wish Joylene, and everyone taking on the challenge to go Dry, all the best. You are making a difference to those affected by cancer,” Kate says.
Joylene, 52, has been nursing for 31 years and has been a McGrath Breast Care Nurse for four years. When the funding for a regional position in Ballarat came through thanks to the money raised from Dry July, she jumped at it.
“It was my dream job. I’ve always been passionate about cancer and improving a patient’s quality of life,” Joylene says.
“I see my role as a McGrath Breast Care Nurse as empowering people. I provide them with information and resources to help reduce the stresses and troubles that come with a breast cancer diagnosis. By being there, I hope that they don’t feel lost, vulnerable and alone.
“The psychosocial support is really important. Having worked in palliative care, it has given me an understanding of how cancer also affects a person’s family and the fear of what a breast cancer diagnosis can mean in relation to life.”
Being a Dry July-funded McGrath Breast Care Nurse means that Joylene is taking part in the campaign again this year.
“Not only has the money raised from Dry July enabled me to help women with breast cancer in our regional community, it’s also a great public awareness campaign,” she says.
“It empowers people and gives them the opportunity to look at themselves and take stock of their health. We know that drinking too much has health risks and implications. Also, all cancer survivorship plans encourage exercise and healthy living, and part of that is drinking less.”
Joylene was so committed to Dry July last year that she didn’t give herself a hall-pass when her daughter turned 18.
“I’m excited about doing it again this year. It’s a good opportunity to reboot my health and take it up a level. Over the last year, I’ve maintained my fitness and I want to get even fitter this year,” she says.
“I want to say thank you very much to Dry July and all those who take part. I think it’s amazing they put their money behind the McGrath Foundation and can see how a McGrath Breast Care Nurse benefits not just the patient, but their families and communities.”
To fund more nurses like Joylene, go Dry this July! Register now at dryjuly.com/mcgrathfoundation.