ACT News

Two-time breast cancer survivor urges early detection

Wedding bells and the excitement of buying a home were fresh in the mind of new Canberran Megan James when her doctor delivered news that turned her world upside-down.

At just 30, James joined the 15,000 women and 125 men diagnosed with breast cancer in Australia each year; a disease that claims the lives of around 2700 women annually. 

Canberra Mother of two Megan James, centre, has been twice diagnosed with breast cancer. She  pictured with sons Griffin ...
Canberra Mother of two Megan James, centre, has been twice diagnosed with breast cancer. She pictured with sons Griffin 10, left, and Dylan 8, right, and David Hutchins, rear. Photo: Jamila Toderas

"I was on an absolute high after getting married and buying a house and then it happened," she said. "Like all these things it was just a terrible shock."

"In my instance it was discovered early and it's because of that I'm still here to talk about it."

James, who now lives in Campbell and is a board member of the Breast Cancer Network of Australia, was forced to abandon plans to start a family and focus on a regimen of chemotherapy, radiotherapy, surgery and hormone treatment. 

"We had to be careful to allow for that possibility but I felt like I had to get on and deal with it," she said.

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"They gave me the whole lot; it was a very tough time."

On the eve of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, James said her experiences were no different to those shared by hundreds of women across the ACT and urged Canberran women to be aware of their bodies and allow for early detection. 

On average, 42 women are diagnosed with breast cancer every day and one in eight women will be diagnosed at some stage in their lives. 

While survival rates have improved in recent years to 89 per cent, the disease still claims the lives of seven women each day across Australia.

The emotional and physical strain of treatment and surgery brought hardship for the young couple, but James passed the important two-year milestone and began to reclaim a lost spring in her step, and took some of her dreams off ice.

At 37 years old, James gave birth to her "miracle child" Griffin, who was followed two years later by the arrival of Dylan.

With a new family, the fears and anxieties of 1996 began to fade as her career developed with regular trips between Sydney and Canberra.

But it didn't last for long. 

"I thought I was all done and dusted, in the clear, but then all of sudden and out of the blue I was diagnosed again in 2012," she said.  

James may have drawn strength from staring cancer down once before but this time it was different.

"The terrifying thing was I now had two children and that just added another layer of complexity to the experience," she said.

"We told the kids about it and were very honest with them but it was information on a need-to-know basis as we tried not to overwhelm them."

The first diagnosis may have placed a strain on a young couple, but the anxieties of the second diagnosis were carried by a young family who feared they may lose their mother to breast cancer.

There were moments Megan clung to as she continued her treatment, which included a double mastectomy and reconstructive surgery. 

"The first time I could pick my children up from school after surgery my youngest, Dylan, had the biggest smile on his face – those type of things just make it OK," she said.

"He just kept saying Mummy's back, Mummy's back, Mummy's strong again!"

Having faced breast cancer twice within 16 years, James noticed many improvements in care and communication although she said the support of family and friends was more important than ever. 

"Things like communication with doctors about your diagnosis and treatment have improved dramatically and that makes it so much easier for those affected," she said. 

"After my second diagnosis I was a mother in a small community which really pulled together to support me.

"I had a group of women I called 'the shady ladies' who did everything they could do to make sure everything was ticking over at home for the kids and there was food in the freezer."

James said the prevailing message from her two experiences was for women to remain aware of their bodies and not shy from mammograms or screenings. 

"As scary as follow-up care may seem it is hugely beneficial to prevent any reappearance," she said. 

"I booked a yearly mammogram test and an ultrasound, then an appointment to see the specialist regularly."

The ACT has historically had the highest rate of breast cancer in Australia as well as one of the lowest rates of public screening. 

In late 2013, BreastScreen ACT reached a five-year high in screening Canberran women but management remained concerned the territory was still lagging behind other jurisdictions. 

BreastScreen Australia now accepts women for free mammograms from the age of 40 and actively targets the 50-69 age bracket.

BY THE NUMBERS

(All figures from Breast Cancer Network Australia)

  • 42 women will be told they have breast cancer everyday (2014)
  • 7 women will lose their lives to breast cancer everyday (2014)
  • More than 15,000 women and around 125 men expected to be diagnosed this year
  • One in 8 Australian women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime
  • Breast cancer the most common cancer diagnosed in women
  • Survival rates continue to improve with the current 5-year survival rate 89%
  • The average age of first diagnosis of breast cancer in women is 60 years
  • The risk of developing breast cancer increases with age
  • 75 per cent of new cases of breast cancer develop in women over the age of 50