Breast cancer awareness – two breast cancer survivors tell their stories

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With breast cancer awareness month upon us, we are reminded, once again, that this disease is never far from our reach. Family, friends, neighbours and colleagues make up the more than 3000 women diagnosed every year in New Zealand – far too many, yet thanks to medical science, many, many women complete their treatment and move on with their lives, sometimes along a different path or with a new perspective. focus met with two local women to hear their stories.

Words: Millie Freeman

Photographs:  Vanessa Laval-Glad , Indigo Moon Films&Photography

Hair: Monique Rockliffe, Ivy Hair

Makeup: Hair & Makeup by Chloe

Wardrobe: Augustine

Kat’s story

In July 2017 Kat Duranton from Omokoroa was 19 weeks pregnant with her second child when she was diagnosed with stage 3 aggressive breast cancer. A former Midwife from the UK, she had changed professions and was studying and working as a Sonographer in Tauranga, suddenly becoming the client instead of the clinician. She was just 31.

Three weeks earlier, Kat and her husband Jean-Marc had just emerged from a “rubbish” 12 months. Kat had undergone major dental work and the year was spent pouring their earnings into repaying the massive resulting debt – essentially compromising family time in order to stay afloat. They were excited to be moving into a new phase of their lives and looked forward to welcoming their baby.

Instead, Kat faced the desperate predicament and uncertainty of subjecting her unborn child to three months of chemotherapy treatment, necessary to immediately try to contain the tumour prior to surgery.

“I couldn’t imagine bringing her to life, even though I was told, very confidently, that it would be fine. It was so difficult to deliberately go against my instinct to put my children first, in favour of my own needs. I just had to accept that she would be okay.”

As devastating as the timing was, Kat clung to the small yet supremely wonderful silver lining – the second trimester is considered the safest time in which to have chemotherapy during pregnancy.She felt lucky to have conceived when she did, because if she wasn’t already pregnant she would likely have lost the opportunity to have another child as the chemo drugs and ovarian suppressants she was later prescribed have thrown her into menopause.

Everything was planned around the oncology side of her care: 12 weeks of chemotherapy, a two-week break, mastectomy at 34 weeks pregnant, drains in for 13 days, then planned caesarean section.

Aoife (pronounced Efa, the Irish version of Eva) was born perfectly healthy in November. “We needed a baby with strength and resilience, and we were gifted one. We decided to call her Aoife, the name of an Irish warrior princess.

“For any woman giving birth, it’s a powerful experience, and for me it was especially potent – the relief to learn that the baby you had subjected to such a toxic environment was perfectly normal. But it was almost too much to process – two major surgeries within two weeks of each other and two babies to look after – I was overcome with every emotion.

“Having Eoin and Aoife kept my feet on the ground. I’m told the two best things you can give your children are roots and wings. They deserve mindful parenting irrespective of my circumstances. I found my strength, comfort and focus in working towards just that, giving them roots and balancing our four lives together.”

Painful loss

The brutality of losing a breast so young, and at the one time in her life when she needed it most, was painfully clear to Kat. She wanted to breastfeed Aoife as she had with Eoin and talked to her oncologists about what was possible, given that chemotherapy had to resume as soon as possible. They allowed two weeks.

“It wasn’t the physical loss of the breast; it was wanting to nurture her, to have the connection, to give her my bond in physical form, and to have to deny her that. That was the most painful part of the whole thing. Those two weeks we had were wonderful; to have given her a start and for her to have that contact with me had a profound effect on my wellbeing.”

While being extremely painful emotionally, that beautiful final feed was in fact the beginning of something wonderful in an entirely different way. Kat returned to chemo treatment and Aoife experienced the incredible generosity of women throughout the country who donated breast milk for her. It is a wonderful story of humanity, of people selflessly stepping in to help a woman provide the best she could for her baby.

Earlier, Kat had contacted North Canterbury Breast Milk (a milk bank) to ask for advice on reaching out to donors, and it immediately sent up the first month’s frozen supply. A call for donors also went out on Facebook.

“It had a huge response – 900 women around the country offered to donate. It was so uplifting to have that kind of support; for other women to empathise and want to help make this a little less painful for us. For me it was essential to give her breast milk because I wanted her to have the best start possible, and it was therapeutic for me to know I was doing my best to achieve that.”

Abundant goodwill

The spirit of goodwill sprang into action with the Milk Bank coordinating the screening of the donated milk and its transport from Christchurch to Tauranga, and Air New Zealand freighting consignments of frozen milk free of charge. Most of all, Kat and her family will be forever grateful to the women, from all around the country, who went out of their way to express milk for Aoife. Many local women are still donating.

“We have a freezer full of milk and hope to continue feeding her this way until she is 12 months. We are lucky to have received donations from so many people who have committed their time in the middle of the night or during the day, often with other children around, to express for Aoife. It was an absolute dream to breastfeed her against the odds, but to receive donor milk, in the first instance, then to reach six months was magnificent. The support we have received is humbling and it has been incredibly uplifting and supportive.”

Today Aoife is a happy, healthy, gorgeous redhead, revelling in the joys of crawling. Kat has returned to work a few days per week and shares childcare with Jean-Marc, who she says has been a mainstay of tireless support. Following the second phase of chemotherapy, Kat went on to have radiotherapy for five weeks and, come December, will be a year in remission. However, she knows there is a considerable risk of the cancer returning and accepts the burden of that will affect her for the rest of her life.

“The fear doesn’t ever go and I struggle with that but I’ve learnt to not put my energy into things that I can’t change. Even though many things have been out of my control, you can’t live in that heightened state of turmoil and trauma, because it’s exhausting. You just have to go slowly, manage your thoughts and continue with daily hurdles one at a time.

“We’ve been very fortunate to have had so many skilled people who have given years of their lives to become medical specialists and for me to receive that care which has saved my life. And to all the people who have given practical support, food and cleaned our house, and to Eoin’s daycare for providing such stability for him – they have all been so kind and selfless and we feel we’ve been gifted a realisation of the meaning of life. They got us through and it’s changed us. We definitely want to pass it forward.”

Giving the best start

North Canterbury Breast Milk is a milk bank providing donated breast milk to local families. It currently donates over 40 litres of milk a week, thanks to the generosity of donor mums, and provides free blood screening tests and equipment to donors. The service will also help find donors for women like Kat who live in other parts of the country. It is entirely resourced by volunteers and relies on the goodwill of community funding. Kat says, “There are many families in New Zealand who suffer the heartache of not being able to breastfeed their babies for whatever reason, yet there is currently no government provision for facilitating the best, and recommended, start for those babies. We are so grateful to the women who have given the gift of their time and milk to support us.”

@northcanterburyMILK

Margot’s story

Dealing with a tumult of emotions is inevitable for any woman going through breast cancer. For Tauranga woman Margot van Cingel it was more like an explosion, pushing her to the very edge of coping ability. Her story recounts the full circle of raw emotions that took her from utter denial and disconnection, to gradual acceptance and positivity. She has been able to move on from what felt like such a confronting ‘Full Stop’, and step back into her life with passion and enthusiasm.

Life was great leading up to mid-2016. Margot was a Master NLP Practitioner and worked part time with a local charitable organisation as Senior Administrator, responsible for supervising the admin team along with some HR and logistics. She was fit, slim and healthy, and was enjoying the new pulse of her life after separating from her husband three years earlier. Until she felt the lump.

“It absolutely never occurred to me that it would happen. It was so far off my radar because I have always been into health and fitness and good nutrition. People I worked with couldn’t believe it and I was probably the most shocked. When the nurse rang me at work to say I was going to have chemo, it completely threw me.”

The tumour was grade 3 triple positive and majorly aggressive. Initially Margot wanted nothing to do with chemotherapy, preferring to treat herself with natural remedies, but after reading the literature and talking with both medical and alternative practitioners, she understood that neo adjuvant chemotherapy for six months was the best way forward. The realisation didn’t mean she accepted it and the blaze of emotions – fear, denial, grief, despair anger – knocked her like a king hit.

In denial

“My hair fell out after three weeks into chemo and I gained weight – I was in total denial and felt like shit. The district cancer nurse would visit in the week before chemo and she was awesome. She said, ‘you can get angry with me’, and I would. Sitting there fat, bald and shitty, I vented about how angry I was, about how I felt robbed of brain power; that I used to be able to multitask, and now I couldn’t.

“I just went into shutdown, and perhaps pushed some people away, because it was so horrific, so horrendous that this was happening to me – why me? – and I couldn’t do anything about it. I know I wasn’t the best patient, because I felt so utterly shocked and devastated, and when I’m frightened I shut down so I relied on my friends to do a lot of talking and listening for me. They would come to appointments and take over from me when I lost track of what I was saying or couldn’t listen anymore.

“It was a really hard and lonely time, especially as a single parent, so I was incredibly grateful to the special friends who took me to every appointment and looked after me in the days following treatment. I couldn’t have done it without them.”

Margot spent six months lying on her friend’s couch and had to leave her job because she was too ill to work. Her son Hugo, attending boarding school at the time, was a huge help on weekends and during the October school holidays when Margot was at her worst during the second phase of chemotherapy. On top of the immediate effects post-treatment, she was also dealing with debilitating nerve pain; from the couch she would text Hugo, in the next room, when she needed food.

Moving on from negativity

Even though the chemo treatment got worse as the months wore on, Margot gradually began to come back into her body, to start making some decisions and listen to what people were saying. As a practising NLP counsellor, she soon realised that she was in fact the best person to get herself through this emotional journey.

“I started to think, here I am in my 50s, doing nothing – with good excuse; what a great time to reassess my life. So I started looking for a message as to why I’d had such a Full Stop. I absolutely had to find a positive in this.

“Having an illness like cancer makes you understand how important it is to slow down and take time to appreciate the many good things in life– friends, family and doing what you love. So I chose to turn the negativity on its head and build myself back up. Now, I’m not the driven person I was and don’t want to be, and I think that’s part of the lesson, or the reason for the Full Stop, and I’m at peace with that.”

Chemotherapy took a toll on Margot’s quality of life but, as well as prompting her self-reassessment, it also had a positive effect on the tumour, which had shrunk by 2cm after the second round. By the time she went for her mastectomy and reconstruction in January 2017, the lump could no longer be felt. While, naturally, there have been ups and downs during her recovery, the emotional explosion settled, and the new Margot, with a fresh outlook could begin to grow and flourish.

Since the end of last year, Margot has been happily volunteering at Tauranga Boys College, assisting in the Business Development Office, and is now ready to find paid work where she can put her project management, IT, logistics, training and counselling expertise to good use in supporting a business.

“In my NLP work and in my former roles in logistics and training, I’m helping make a difference in someone’s day, and that’s what I find so rewarding.”