This week for Intrepid Bebe Asks, I interview Katie. Katie is a Wife, Mum of two, and a good friend of mine. Katie is also my hero. I wasn’t really someone who had heroes growing up. There weren’t too many people I could readily identify as individuals who inspire, motivate, and make me want to be a better person. Katie does all that. Almost two years ago, she was handed a pretty crappy set of cards. As a new Mother, she discovered that, what was initially thought to be Mastitis, was in fact Breast Cancer. A nightmare scenario for any Woman, but as a new Mum, it’s hard to fathom what that might feel like. She not only faced this diagnosis head on, but did so with strength and grace. Katie’s story isn’t just important because it raises awareness of Breast Cancer in young Women, and new Mothers. Or because she can share practical advice based on her experience. It’s important because, if you can take a little of her outlook in life away with you, you’ll walk away a better person.
Please can you tell us a bit about yourself and your family
I am a 34 year old mum to two very ‘strong willed’ children, 4 and 2, who challenge me every day. A wife to my High School sweetheart (who also challenges me a lot!), but also knows me better than I know myself. He is my constant source of unconditional love, strength & support. I work 3 days a week in Communications and Engagement. I love fashion, interior styling, travelling, great food, great wine and spending time with great people.
And what is life in Moama like for people who haven’t been fortunate to visit home of the ‘Mighty Mowers’?
We moved to the border towns of Echuca/Moama (Australia), almost 11 years ago on a bit of a whim. After growing up in the country and then living in capital cities, Moama is a nice middle ground. It still has that Community feel of a smaller town but due to the high number of tourists there is always something going on, plenty of nice places to eat out, the weather is great and it is not too far from where we grew up or the bright lights of Melbourne where we regularly visit.
We never imagined we’d stay here as long as we have but we are so grateful we did. Even before I became ill we thought it was a great place to raise a family but after my diagnosis our Friends, the Football Club and the entire Community showed us so much kindness and generosity and I’m not sure we would have got through it as well as we did without them.
In February 2015 beautiful Bowie was born, could you please tell as about the months that followed, and what led to your Breast Cancer diagnosis?
Still in the newborn bubble and trying to navigate a new world with two kids I was hit with a bout of Mastitis when Bowie was about 6 weeks old. I didn’t think anything of it and a course of Antibiotics soon cleared it up. But my Breast remained lumpy and I was more conscious of massaging the area because I didn’t want it to occur again, until one day in the shower I felt a larger lump up near my armpit that I hadn’t noticed before. Still not concerned I showed it to my Husband and he insisted I get it checked out. My GP wasn’t particularly concerned either but thank goodness he referred me for an Ultrasound. Then, as they say; ‘the rest was history’ and our world was totally turned upside down. Two days later I was sitting in my GPs office being told I had Cancer. It’s a moment in time I will never forget and one that still gives me goose-bumps to this day.
Could you share with us what happened next & your treatment journey entailed?
I was given the diagnosis on a Friday and then literally the following week I was in Melbourne having biopsy’s, full body scans, meeting Breast Cancer Surgeons and Fertility specialists to discuss my options. It was an overwhelming and terrifying time. I was made to take tablets to stop me lactating and had to wean my four-month old Daughter onto formula within two days in preparation for surgery, which is still one of the toughest things we had to do.
Then less than 2 weeks after my diagnosis I was having surgery to remove the lumps in my breast and all the lymph nodes from under my arm. Thankfully they got all the Cancer and there was no evidence of it having spread anywhere else in my body but there are never any guarantees so I was required to undertake 6 months of Chemotherapy – 4 rounds every 3 weeks and then weekly for 12 weeks. I was really scared. You hear Chemo and instantly think of all the horror stories of people feeling so sick they can’t get up of the bathroom floor and vomiting the second the poison hits your veins but I was pretty lucky. I definitely felt groggy, lethargic and a bit ‘hung-over’ (but without the joy of having had a good night) for a few days but then there were some good days in between before you got the next hit. At the same time as the chemo I also had to have another type of treatment specific to my type of cancer called Herceptin, which is administered like a chemo every 3 weeks for 12 months but thankfully doesn’t have any side effects.
At the end of my Chemo I choose to avoid Radiotherapy and have a double Mastectomy and reconstruction at the same time. The surgery went well but the recovery process for me was complicated. I ended up with an infection on one side and had to have a number of follow-up procedures to fix the problem which resulted in a number of weeks in hospital away from my kids and a much longer time to recover than expected. My mum literally had to move in with us to take care of the kids and while she was amazing and we couldn’t have survived without her – I felt like I was watching someone else live my life as I couldn’t even lift my kids or do all the normal things I would usually do – it was really tough.
I am also on hormone treatment for the next 5 years, which involves monthly injections in the stomach and daily tablets to reduce my Oestrogen levels and hopefully inhibit any further growth.
You were an inspiration to me in the way you determinedly faced treatment, and still always managed a smile on you face and an ear for your friends. Not to mention being a Mother and Wife. Did this come naturally, or did you work to maintain a positive mindset?
Thank you, that’s very kind. In a way I didn’t have a choice. I had two little kids that needed me. They didn’t care how terrible I was feeling or how I looked they needed their Mum to feed them, change them and play with them and I didn’t want them to suffer because of what was happening to me. We wanted to try to keep life as ‘normal’ as possible.
But in a world that was so out of my control I did make a conscious effort to try to be in control of how I responded and my choice was to be as positive as I could. Don’t get me wrong there were days when it was really tough and I’d cry and ask ‘why me’ but generally my attitude was that most people have to overcome some sort of challenge’s in their life and unfortunately this was mine and so sitting around feeling sorry for myself wasn’t going to change that. And while I wouldn’t wish what we went through on my worst enemy I did learn a lot about myself and life and was shown so much generosity and kindness that I still take many positives away from the experience.
As a friend, I know I felt pretty helpless at times; we basically became feeders as our attempt to offer support. What advice would you give to a family member or friend of someone facing Cancer? And is there anything that really isn’t helpful?
I’m can understand how helpless you all must have felt but honestly you and Greg were an enormous source of support to me and my Husband! I still remember all the funny stories you sent me on the day of my first Chemo to try to take my mind off things and make me laugh, the flowers to brighten my day, the homemade baby food was the only thing that got me through starting solids with my daughter and Greg’s Parmesan Chicken goes down as an all time favourite!
You should really be asking all our Family and Friends this question because I think they honestly nailed it and seemed to anticipate our needs before we even knew what they were! One truly amazing Friend, with the support of possibly the entire town, coordinated a head shave, auction and family fundraising day. There was a huge turnout, and 4 of my close female Friends shaved their heads and so did a number of men. It was truly one of the most inspiring days of my life, knowing that we had such support. An unbelievable amount of money raised, which helped to pay for travel to and from hospital. and a holiday in Fiji once I was nearing the end of treatment. Another friend coordinated a food drive where we had meals made by different people delivered to our house for 3 weeks after my surgery! It still blows me away how caring and considerate people were.
But it’s not just the grand gestures that are important. You don’t want to be treated any differently but it is nice when people acknowledge what you are going through and check in regularly to see how you are doing. So anyone who made the effort to come see us, call, text, send flowers etc it was really appreciated and went a long way to brighten my day.
I would also remind people not to forget about the Partner, Parents, Siblings or Children of the person going through Cancer. My Friends were really great at popping over for a laugh, chat, cry or whatever was needed but Blokes aren’t quite as good in that department and I often worried about how my husband was coping as he had to try to keep it all together to look after me, the kids and still work full-time.
Coming to the end of your treatment was a huge milestone, was it a time of mixed emotions?
Yes absolutely. A Breast care nurse had told me that many patients find the post treatment phase the hardest and I totally get it. While you are undergoing treatment you are in this intense world of constant appointments, regular contact with Medical professionals checking you, telling you what to do, its horrible but in a way you feel safe, your life is pretty well mapped out for you and you get lots of attention and then suddenly it all stops. When you are in the middle of it, all you want is your old life back but then when it comes back what does that actually mean? There is joy and relief that the treatment is over but you also now have all this time on your hands to think about the ‘what ifs’ and it can be easy to get anxious about every ache, bump or lump.
Do you feel 100% now?
100% is hard to say (I still have 2 young kids remember!) but on the whole I would say I am pretty close. The hormone treatment gives me hot flushes, makes my joints ache sometimes and leaves me with other menopausal symptoms that are not particularly pleasant but are all things that I am learning to live with. I could argue that my concentration levels are still not quite what they used to be but maybe that is just a convenient excuse!
Do you have any advice for someone going through Cancer?
Everyone’s Cancer journey is different so it is hard to really offer generic advice. I can only talk from my experience and some of the things that I found useful or wish I had known.
Understand your type of Cancer, your treatment options and don’t be afraid to ask questions or get a second opinion. A Cancer diagnosis is very overwhelming. There is a lot of information to take in and there will be a lot of Doctors telling you what to do. But you still need to be proactive in managing your own heath and doing what is right for you. At the same time try not to get too caught up in the statistics or other people’s stories though because what happened to someone else might not necessarily be the case for you.
Take it one step at a time. Breast Cancer treatment is filled with many components and is a lengthy process. Surgery, Chemo, losing your hair, hormone treatment, Radiotherapy – and all have very different and difficult side effects. Thinking about it all at once is very daunting. Just try to get through each stage at a time.
By kind to yourself, ask for and accept help. I found that Chemo really had an impact on my energy and concentration levels and after surgery I wasn’t supposed to do any lifting for 6 weeks. We tried to keep life as normal as possible but I had to recognise when I was tired and couldn’t do all the things that I normally would. I got in a cleaner and accepted food and help with the kids from family & friends. I also had to limit the amount of time I spent on social media so I didn’t depress myself looking at people looking beautiful and doing fun things that I didn’t have any energy for.
Rock your bald-head. Shave your hair off before it starts falling out because no matter how prepared you think you are for it, it’s still a horrible feeling. Get some friends around, have a drink and a laugh, try on some crazy wigs and try to make the best of a bad situation. I guess I felt embarrassed about how I looked without any hair and didn’t want to freak people out or have them treat me differently so I covered up with wigs and hats all the time and didn’t show anyone other than my husband and kids. As a result I don’t really have any good photos of me without any hair. If I had my time over again I don’t think I would be so self-conscious.
Surround yourself with positive people and seek professional help if you need it. Read inspiring books, listen to music that makes you dance, start a gratitude journal, practice yoga or meditation whatever helps you to relax and feel good about yourself because no matter how strong or positive you are there will be bad days and you will need all the resources you can get your hands on.
Don’t be afraid to play the ‘Cancer card’. There are a lot of great assistance programs out there for people with cancer and their families – counselling, accommodation and travel reimbursements, holiday houses, childcare rebates, home help, health and beauty workshops – so use them, that’s what they are there for.
How is your life different now compared to pre diagnosis?
You can’t go through something like what we’ve been through and not feel different in some ways I think. From the outside I probably look the same (except that I have new perkier boobs and shorter hair!) but on the inside I definitely feel different. I have a new appreciation for life and I am trying to make the most of what it has to offer. My experience has given me the chance to reflect on what is really important in life and what I want for myself and my Family.
I am making a conscious effort to try to improve both my physical and mental health and wellbeing with positive food, exercise and lifestyle choices. I am also trying to fill my life with more things that I truly enjoy and people who inspire and uplift me. We were shown so much kindness and generosity during my treatment that I would like to be able to give back and support others suffering from cancer and I am currently getting involved in a number of charities and support groups. I also have a new perspective on body image and would love if I could find a way to help women feel more comfortable and confident in their own skin.
What does the future hold for Katie?
This is a very good question and one that I’m still trying to work out. In some ways I try not to think about the future too much as there will always be an element of uncertainty about my health and I don’t want to live in fear. There is also a danger in putting too much pressure on myself to live an ‘amazing’ life, as I feel like I have been given a second chance, one that many other cancer sufferers don’t get, and I don’t want to waste that but that is a big burden to carry.
So for now all I can really do is try to live in the moment, be grateful for what I have, make the most of every opportunity and try to be the best version of myself that I can.
For more information: