Diary of a breast cancer survivor
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Diary of a breast cancer survivor

Author Helen O'Neill details her encounter with one of the biggest killers of women.

My breast cancer story began almost exactly three years ago during - irony of ironies - Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

I had come down with what turned out to be a bout of whooping cough. ''How Victorian,'' I mumbled to my doctor, wondering whether I was likely to contract consumption next. More likely connected to an epidemic sparked by ill-advised parents refusing to immunise their children, she told me.

Seek help ... Cancer can be a lonely disease, but awareness is growing thanks to Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

Seek help ... Cancer can be a lonely disease, but awareness is growing thanks to Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

As I spluttered my way to recovery I absent-mindedly started rubbing my chest, and that is when I noticed the lump. Round, tough, the size of a small marble; it felt solid and ominous to me.

Also puzzling. I'd never even checked my breasts before, having no family history of either lumps or breast cancer. I don't smoke, drink only red wine and considered myself one of the fitter people I know.

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Kylie Minogue ...  Likened her chemotherapy for her breast cancer as an atomic explosion.

Kylie Minogue ... Likened her chemotherapy for her breast cancer as an atomic explosion.

Yet before you could say ''double mastectomy'', I was undergoing my first-ever mammogram, followed by a needle biopsy, which turned up nothing to warrant concern.

The surgeon at Sydney's RPA Hospital told me lumps presenting like this were generally nothing to worry about; in fact, she said, she had not seen a problematic one all year. Even so, she would remove and check it, then see me again to formalise that all was well.

The night before that surgery, I flicked on the TV and found myself face to face with RPA, Channel 9's now-defunct fly-on-the-wall hospital show. Sure enough, there was my surgeon, gowned and gloved up, about to get stuck into what looked like a very serious breast cancer procedure.

Urgh! No. I switched it off and tried to get some sleep.

Helen O'Neill ... "Every year Breast Cancer Awareness Month rolls around and it remains bitter-sweet for me."

Helen O'Neill ... "Every year Breast Cancer Awareness Month rolls around and it remains bitter-sweet for me."

About a week after the procedure, I went in to get my biopsy results, at which point my surgeon told me I'd been ''the surprise of the day''. In one sense she'd been right, it seemed, the lump I'd identified did not appear problematic. But right beside it she had found a rather nasty, malignant tumour.

Yes, I had cancer. The floor fell away.

Welcome project ... <i>David Jones: 175 Years</i>, by Helen O'Neill.

Welcome project ... David Jones: 175 Years, by Helen O'Neill.

Through the shock I registered that my surgeon was talking slowly and very carefully. I would need treatment, she said, but first we had to answer a question: had the cancer already spread?

Leaving her offices, I was ushered into a meeting with a specialist oncology nurse, who went through everything with me again. Then I sat in the hospital cafe, eating jelly snakes and shaking.

That night, in one of the most vivid dreams I have experienced, I stood alone on a desolate, dark, alien world. Whenever I tried to take a step, the rocks beneath my feet threatened to liquefy. All I could do was remain frozen, look out at the stars and think: why?

Back in the real world it wasn't long before I found myself again on an RPA gurney awaiting exploratory lymph-node surgery. When breast cancer cells travel, this is the route they like to take.

This time the biopsy would take place while I was unconscious. Get the all-clear and I'd be home that afternoon. But if my lymph nodes proved cancerous, I'd go straight back under the knife to have them removed and wake up on the way to the hospital ward, and several nights' stay.

As I lay there looking at the operating theatre's closed doors, the anaesthetist appeared. Recognising me from my previous procedure, he quizzed me on when my amnesia had kicked in. What did he mean, I asked.

Well, he said, did I remember helping move myself from the gurney to the operating table? ''Absolutely not,'' I told him, aghast. He nodded and disappeared into a doorway. Crikey, I thought, what else had I done?

A sound system burped into action. Before my first operation, I'd heard soothing classical music piping into the operating theatre. This time the team had chosen disco, starting with the Bee Gees and Staying Alive.

A young medic appeared to check that all was OK. ''If I try to start dancing, just don't ever tell me,'' I said. Then everything went black.

I woke up in transit to the recovery room, not the ward. Good news. My lymph nodes were clear. I now faced two options: to walk away and cross my fingers that the cancer would never return, or to play the numbers game and dive into blunt-force treatments that slashed the chance of recurrence.

It didn't even feel like a choice, so with the violence of a door slamming shut, my life changed completely. I went straight into chemotherapy (four ''cycles'', each of which took three weeks), to be followed immediately by radiotherapy (30 sessions, on consecutive days), after which I would have five years of hormone treatment.

Many people sail through all this. I did not. Kylie Minogue likened the chemotherapy she underwent for her breast cancer to an atomic explosion, and that is how it felt to me.

Four times I visited the chemotherapy unit to have drugs pumped into my bloodstream. Each session left me fighting nausea, light-headedness, anxiety and dread. Time seemed to stand still; my energy deteriorated. I tried to walk for an hour each day to combat the side effects and counted backwards, like a jailbird looking forward to the moment I would be free. An unexpected aspect was ''chemo brain''. Some avoid this completely but I had it badly, a mind fog that brought the advantage of making the days slide into each other but left me barely able to concentrate enough to read. At times I thought I'd never be able to lucidly string two words together again - a terrifying prospect for a writer.

When I was diagnosed with cancer, I was part-way through researching a biography of the architect Harry Seidler, one of those towering projects in every way. As the treatments kicked in, I found myself having to stop work completely. Would I ever be able to finish it? I didn't know.

My partner was fantastic; he was with me every step of the way. Friends surprised me with wonderful gifts, bringing food, mailing presents and keeping in touch. One even came over every single Sunday and drove me to the ocean for a swim, come hail, rain or shine. For this, I can never thank her enough.

Before my hair fell out, I visited the RPA's ''wig library'' and chose a new 'do - a fringed pageboy bob that I got rather attached to - but one of the worst moments came with the realisation that not only was I entirely bald but that my eyelashes were falling out as well.

Family flooded in: my sister and nephews from France and, in my last week of radiotherapy, my brother from Britain. He and my partner came with me for my final bout of radiotherapy, and saw me ring the special bell set up in the waiting room - a noise that heralds the moment a patient's treatment is finally done.

I negotiated a new deadline for my manuscript and tried to rebuild my shattered confidence with a first draft that seemed, to me, dreadful. Then a publisher representing David Jones approached - they wanted a history of the 175-year-old department store and would I do it?

The real question was ''Could I do it?'', and still weakened from the treatments, I really wasn't sure. My partner stepped in, telling me to have faith in myself and to start my life again. And though today sometimes I can barely believe it, I said yes and got everything done.

The DJs history (David Jones: 175 Years) came out in April, and in a few weeks' time A Singular Vision: Harry Seidler will appear. Projects done and hair regrown, it feels as though I can really start to breath again.

Today I am well and back on track. Life is good. Yet scars remain. Every year Breast Cancer Awareness Month rolls around and it remains bitter-sweet for me.

This is the month my nightmare started, a surreal-enough landscape without water bottles having pink lids, but the reminders are important, too. One in eight women in this country will be diagnosed with breast cancer by the time they are 85, and early detection is paramount. Too few of us self-examine or make use of those free mammograms, and this has to change.

Cancer can be a lonely disease, yet we are surrounded by support if we look for it. It is frightening and sometimes difficult, but in truth we are never alone.

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