For Vanessa Kostrz, life took an unexpected turn when she was diagnosed with breast cancer just 18 months after an anal cancer diagnosis. Dealing with back-to-back cancers took its toll on Vanessa, but she refused to give up and now runs a support group for other women navigating breast cancer.
Vanessa was diagnosed with anal cancer in 2019. Doctors kept telling her she had an internal hemorrhoid but one day she woke up and couldn’t walk. A colonoscopy revealed the grapefruit-sized tumor, and she was wheelchair bound for three months before undergoing chemotherapy and radiation.
By the start of 2021, she was on the road to recovery but in August that year she found a lump on her breast. Within two days she was diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer.
“I thought, are you kidding me? Less than six months after recovering from the other cancer and 18 months from my first diagnosis,” she says.
“It was just tough. My children live in Western Australia, telling them I had cancer the first time was horrible because no one could go anywhere thanks to lockdown. I told them I’d finished treatment then had to ring them with the news about breast cancer. That was devastating.
“I didn’t know how to feel at the time. I was all over the place, but I thought I had two choices, I can either let it beat me or I can climb this mountain and get on with it and do it. So that’s what I decided to do, I moved the mountain.”
Vanessa started chemotherapy within a fortnight of being diagnosed with breast cancer and genetic testing revealed she carried the BRCA1 cancer gene.
During this time, there was a brief window when borders opened and her children, aged 22 and 16, could visit from WA.
“I’m grateful they were there, it was almost like they needed to see what I was going through. I remember my son saying, ‘Do you have to do this every week mum? Oh God mum, how do you do this? You come home from chemo and there’s no one here with you?’ I just told them that ‘Mum just has to do it, mums are tough’,” Vanessa says.
Vanessa finished treatment in February 2022, the aggressiveness of the tumor and BRCA1 diagnosis meant she opted for a double mastectomy. An MRI in August showed shadows on her uterus, and because BRCA1 carriers have a higher risk of ovarian cancer, she had a full hysterectomy.
“I’ve got nothing left now. No teeth, no boobs and no insides,” Vanessa half-jokes. “I have to joke about things, that’s how I get through it.”
“Coming home on a Monday after chemo, knowing Tuesday-Thursday I’d feel like crap, I needed to give myself permission to do that and experience that feeling. I needed to process my emotions and I think by doing that it made me really strong.”
Going through cancer while living alone
When Vanessa split with her partner, she moved from WA to SA to be closer to family. Her children wanted to stay in WA. It was a wrench, but she didn’t expect closed borders to keep them apart for so long.
While her parents and sister live nearby, she still came home to an empty house after chemotherapy.
“It’s been bloody tough but at the same time I would play a song over and over again, music is how I get through my emotions and moods. The Climb by Miley Cyrus really resonated with me – there’s always going to be another mountain, you will always have to climb it and make it move. I did that, I made it move.”
McGrath Breast Care Nurse Lindi Brokenshire’s role in Vanessa’s recovery
It’s not an exaggeration to say that meeting Lindi changed the course of Vanessa’s life. And we’re not just talking about her medical treatment.
“Lindi was a breath of fresh air. To get a phone call from her and have a joke was incredible, she’d get my humor, and I decided to go to one of her support meetings. From that support group, I’ve now taken it over and am the coordinator. I’m so passionate about helping women through their journey,” Vanessa says.
“What I found personally is we have a lot of support throughout our time going through treatments, but the hardest, toughest, loneliest, and most emotionally difficult part has been after you’ve finished chemo, had surgery, and people think you’re all good now.”
As well as giving Vanessa a new purpose, Lindi was there to support her throughout treatment.
“When I first spoke to her on the phone, I think we were both crying. When I was diagnosed with anal cancer, a social worker spoke to me, but she had no idea about it, so I explained it to her. She said she’d be in touch, and I never heard back from her. I had no support,” Vanessa says.
“So, when Lindi reached out to me I was very blunt, I said, ‘Don’t tell me you’ll ring me and then not, I’ve been through this before,’ and she said, ‘What do you mean you didn’t get support? I’m a McGrath Breast Care Nurse and this is what we do.’ I cried when I realised I was actually going to get support and have someone to talk to about this.
“It’s why I’m so passionate about supporting other women.”
“It’s been a privilege to be Vanessa’s McGrath Breast Care Nurse. Her optimism, her strength and her positivity are astounding. I’m in awe of Vanessa and how she’s handled her experiences of cancer,”
McGrath Breast Care Nurse, Lindi Brokenshire
Lindi is in the unenviable position of having first-hand experience when it comes to breast cancer. She was only 30 years old, and a mum to three small children, when she was diagnosed. At the time, she had little support.
“I never had a breast care nurse, there wasn’t any such thing in those days. That’s where my passion for breast cancer comes from,” she says. “I first heard of breast cancer nurses when Jane McGrath started the Foundation.”
Lindi aims to give patients the care and guidance she wishes she had all those years ago.
“What I love about this role is being able to communicate with, advocate for, and support our clients from when they get their first phone call, through to treatment, and their transition to wellness,” she says.
Every patient has a story, but Lindi was especially moved by Vanessa’s.
“It’s been a privilege to be Vanessa’s McGrath Breast Care Nurse. Her optimism, her strength and her positivity are astounding. I am in awe of Vanessa and how she’s handled her experiences of cancer,” Lindi says.
Vanessa lived alone; she did have supportive family living locally, however having her children living interstate during Covid was especially hard for Vanessa.
“I would phone Vanessa regularly; we would discuss her treatment, any symptoms, brainstorm and develop strategies to help with side effects from her chemotherapy. I noticed that the more we spoke, I could sense a mutual bond transforming, I was Vanessa’s breast care nurse, and Vanessa’s someone to confide and talk to.”
Being rural made some things more difficult, including not being able to meet with Vanessa face to face. Lindi referred Vanessa to her Clare Valley support group, which makes providing in-person care and support more achievable.
“I don’t go to all the meetings and Vanessa volunteered to be the coordinator and is doing an amazing job! It’s very rewarding for Vanessa and it’s empowering to see women take control of the support group themselves.”
The support of a McGrath Breast Care Nurse is a free service, no matter where you live. To find your nearest McGrath Breast Care Nurse, visit mcgrathfoundation.com.au/get-support/find-a-nurse.