Get regular breast examinations
Angela Tovey has helped more than 50 women through breast cancer diagnosis and treatment in her role as an Auckland GP, but on Christmas Eve last year she was herself confronted with the disease.
“That was a lovely Christmas present,” she laughs. “It was a bit grim and I had to wait three weeks before I could have surgery or before I could find out what type of breast cancer I had. It’s a long time to wait when you’ve just been diagnosed with cancer,” she says.
The 59-year-old’s breast cancer was discovered after she’d been for her annual mammogram and ultrasound. She chose to have yearly breast screening because she’d been taking Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) for more than ten years and prolonged use of HRT can increase the risk of breast cancer.
Her ultrasound and mammogram came back clear, but Angela was still worried by a niggle in her left breast and decided to see a breast surgeon. The surgeon did a physical exam and discovered a lump that didn’t feel quite right. A further ultrasound and biopsy revealed that it was breast cancer.
Angela then made a radical decision. Even though the cancer was only found in her left breast, she decided to have a double mastectomy.
“The tumour had been hard to see and I just didn’t want to risk that happening again in the other breast. I thought, if I’m losing one breast, I’ll always be worrying about the other one so I might as well have them both off,” she says.
She had her double mastectomy in January this year. Both breasts and 29 lymph nodes from under her left arm were removed.
“When they took the bandages off, I howled my eyes out. I wasn’t ready to see my chest, but over the next few days I started to take a peek and it was okay,” she says.
Angela says that was one of her lowest moments, but she’s tried to remain stoic throughout her treatment. She made a list of the pros and cons of getting breast cancer.
“The pros included not having to wear a sports bra when I rode my horse,” she laughs. “I guess I didn’t dwell on things because I have seen so many women go through breast cancer and I know that for most women it’s just a bump in the road and everything turns out alright. “
Angela’s mastectomy was followed by chemotherapy and like many women she says she found losing her hair one of the hardest parts of chemotherapy treatment.
“I did have a bit of a fit when my hair started to fall out. I was hoping that it wouldn’t, but of course it did. Big clumps just fell out all over the place so I decided to have it all shorn off.”
Angela says her experience of breast cancer has highlighted the importance of breast examination.
“I firmly believe that women should have their regular mammograms, but they should also have their GP do a breast examination. That’s how my cancer was found and I know that working as a GP I’ve found about ten breast cancers in other women that way. It’s really important.”
Angela also believes women with breast cancer should rely on their GPs more during diagnosis and treatment.
“Your GP can be a great support as you go through breast cancer treatment so make sure you use them. Don’t be shy about asking for help and if you’re depressed visit your GP straight away. You don’t need to put up with depression and it won’t help with your healing either.”