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Unexpected diagnosis inspires essence for life


Story by Holly McKay

It was the diagnosis she didn’t see coming.

Heather McMahon was just 46-years-old when she noticed her right breast was lumpy, but with a history of benign lumps, she thought nothing of it.

After seeing a GP and being told there wasn’t anything to worry about, Heather felt the lumps were getting worse and saw another doctor a month later who referred her for an ultrasound and scan at Cabrini Malvern.

Heather said she vividly recalled the technician telling her she would need to ring her doctor and make an appointment that afternoon.

“I said ‘oh no no, she’ll just phone through the results and it will all be fine’, and he said ‘no, I think you need to go and see her this afternoon’,” Heather said.

“I was feeling terrible. I was hoping for the best but fearing the worst all at the same time. That afternoon I walked in and my doctor asked if I’d like a cup of tea I thought ‘damn it, it’s really bad news’.”

On September 3, 2013 Heather was diagnosed with breast cancer.

The mother-of-two said her immediate thoughts were about her two daughters, Elizabeth and Adelaide, who were just seven and four at the time.

“My first thought wasn’t for me, it was ‘oh, my poor kids’,” she said.

“I didn’t necessarily think I would die because my mother’s had breast cancer and she’s completely fine, she’s 81 and that was 40 years ago. I was more thinking of the disruption and I was really angry that it had happened.”

Heather booked in to see Cabrini breast surgeon Jennifer Senior and was seen the next day.

After undergoing a biopsy she was told the cancer had spread to some of the lymph nodes.

“The plan was to have eight rounds of chemotherapy to reduce the size of the cancer, then with a bit of luck I wouldn’t have to have a mastectomy,” Heather said.

“After four rounds it reduced dramatically . . . but it wasn’t enough.”

In total Heather had six rounds of chemo and a lumpectomy to try to remove the remaining cancer, but when the test results came back they revealed she had another cancer underneath.

“That was devastating, I’d kind of allowed myself to think I’d get away with a lumpectomy,” Heather said.

It was in that exact moment she realised the incredible coincidence with her and her mother’s cancer diagnosis.

Both women had two lumps removed before the third was found to be cancer, both in the right breast, diagnosed at the same age and both were found to have other cancers underneath.

Following her partial mastectomy and six weeks of radiation, Heather was given the all clear.

“By that point I was happy but nothing much was registering. You get to the end and people expect you to be elated but you just can’t really.”

Heather returned to Cabrini in July 2015 for her breast reconstruction and said she found the hospital’s breast care nurses and ward staff “fantastic”.

“I think it was the efficiency of everything. Everything happens as everyone says it’s going to happen. You are very well informed every step of the way, everything runs really smoothly and everyone is really caring, these wonderful breast care nurses are really lovely,” she said.

“You’re emotionally very vulnerable and outside you have to handle other people’s expectations and emotions around your own treatment. You’re managing you kids, husband, your life, other people’s reactions to you and not react to things people say to you. So when you come here it’s actually quite a relief because everyone understands.”

A yoga teacher by trade, and the owner and founder of Yoga Essence, she said this would be the second time she had attended Cabrini’s Breast Cancer Care Luncheon, as a way to celebrate and reflect on not only her journey, but those around her.

“I went to the luncheon last year, everyone was really happy and bubbly, it was really light. It’s nice to go to the lunch without having to talk about it (cancer) but be amongst other people who’ve had the same experience, you can feel it – it was like a feeling of being held.”

Cabrini Breast Care Nurse Alison Murphy was one of the nurses to look after Heather during her cancer treatment.

Alison said the nurses, doctors and allied health staff at Cabrini Breast Cancer Care offered a coordinated and multidisciplinary approach to the care of patients.

“You want warm, attentive and supportive nursing staff who can engage with you and I think that’s what Cabrini provides,” she said.

Alison said the breast care team provided patients with personalised, supportive care and information from the beginning of their treatment through to rehab and beyond.

“We have open ended contact with patients, we still get lots of calls from people who may be six months down the track,” she said.

Alison encouraged people to attend this year’s luncheon as a way to “get dressed up, and celebrate the achievements of both staff and patients”.

The Cabrini Cancer Care Luncheon will be held at Carousel in Albert Park on Friday, October 11. Listen while you share canapés, lunch and dessert, while raising much needed funds.