The power of care is…being able to live your life – Venessa’s story

When Venessa Pearce was diagnosed with breast cancer at 37, the mum-of-three wasn’t too surprised. Her mum had also had it and Venessa had steeled herself, knowing it could also happen to her. But what made their experiences vastly different was how treatment has evolved over the last three decades. Venessa believes that if the McGrath Foundation had existed back then, her mother’s journey would have been a lot smoother.

The diagnosis

Venessa had always experienced lumpy breasts as part of her premenstrual symptoms, so she didn’t think anything of the lump she found even though it was a bit bigger than normal. But when it didn’t go away, she booked an appointment with her GP. “The doctor said it felt like a cyst. I’d mentioned my family history and that I’d had a scare on my other breast in 2015, when I found out I suffered from cysts. She referred me to a breast clinic in Geelong, which is about 77km away,” she says.

“With my mum having breast cancer, I’d mentally prepared myself for the worst. I thought it was something that could happen.”

The treatment

Everything moved quickly after that. Venessa was diagnosed October 31, saw the breast surgeon on November 8 and had her first chemotherapy session on November 17, 2022. “All my treatment was in Geelong. Because of my type of cancer and how quickly it was growing, they wanted to attack it straight away,” she says. After chemo, it was a double mastectomy and five weeks of radiation.

“It was the first time I fully cried because it was the first time it wasn’t my choice,” Venessa says. “They were saying, ‘If we don’t get it out of you and remove your breast tissue, there’s the potential of it coming back.’ And I thought, why am I putting myself through all this if it could come back?” Venessa also had genetic testing and was surprised she wasn’t a carrier of the BRCA breast cancer gene. “When your mother passes away from cancer and you get it too, you think, ‘Is this genetic?’. Mum was about 42-44 when she was diagnosed and what also made it hard for me is mum was adopted, so we had no prior family history to go on,” she says. “For the test to come back negative was a relief. One of the reasons I did it was because I have children and I wanted to know if they were at risk. They can now feel safer knowing that breast cancer is not necessarily going to be part of their journey.”

Maintaining a positive mindset

Venessa has three children, aged 22, 21 and 17, and stayed strong for them. “From the start, we made the decision that it would be a positive journey. Even on the bad days, we took the attitude of regardless what it was, it could’ve been worse. We did say if today’s hard, it’s OK, we’ll make sure tomorrow’s a good day. “It definitely helped us through it all, because when I cried everyone else cried. I tried not to, I thought that I had a task and it’s to beat cancer and push myself through it. I looked at it as a job that needed to be done.” Venessa also worked her 9-5 job, as a terminal coordinator for Origin Energy. She worked in the morning, had her appointments in the afternoon and took her chemo days off. “What would I do? Sit at home feeling sorry for myself and think about cancer all day?” she says. “Working was great for my mental health and helped me live everyday as normally as possible.”

McGrath Breast Care Nurse Charlotte Henry’s role in Venessa’s recovery

Being a regional patient who was having treatment at a city hospital meant Venessa had a team of McGrath Breast Care Nurses looking after her. Sue and Michelle coordinated her care in Geelong. “They were fantastic, they made sure all my appointments were booked, She organized them if there were conflicts and told me where to go. They were my planners and the logistics experts,” she says. “I received a letter from Charlotte, the local McGrath Breast Care Nurse in my hometown of Colac, introducing herself and providing fuel vouchers to help with travelling to Geelong. We met soon after and she became my go-to. “You talk to your local nurse so much that they feel like a friend. If I had any concerns, I’d talk to her. She’d check up on me after treatment, would give me suggestions when I didn’t feel well and provided lots of support. “I wanted to look into mum’s medical records and she helped me with the Freedom of Information forms for that. “I’m very lucky. The nurses in Geelong do such a vast area because the majority of us travel there. To have a McGrath Breast Care Nurse in Colac was a huge help. Charlotte was always available whenever I needed her.”

“I feel incredibly privileged to do what I do. I explain it to people as being a friend in the healthcare system, someone who can bring it all together and help navigate the tricky world that is the hospital and healthcare system. I helped facilitate Venessa’s treatment here in Colac, which had a positive impact on her work life, family life and children. Her surgery was in Geelong, but I could do her dressing and wound checks.”

Comparing breast cancer treatment 30 years apart

Venessa was 12 years old when her mum was diagnosed with breast cancer. As a single parent without a driver’s license in a regional town, she couldn’t commit to the public transport commute to the city. “It was the early 2000’s, Colac didn’t have these resources and breast cancer wasn’t openly talked about, so I don’t think she knew where to go for help,” Venessa says. She believes her mother would’ve been able to successfully get through treatment if she had the same resources Venessa was lucky to have.

“I feel so fortunate because I know what mum went through, what was available to her then and what’s available now. The fact they jumped on my cancer so quickly and looked after me meant I felt completely safe with the decisions everyone around me was making,” she says. “Without the dream team of McGrath Breast Care Nurses, I would’ve been a lot more scared. They gave me the ability to live every day like it was normal – except for those days I was having treatment.”

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