The shock was setting in ...

My name is Annette Wikeepa. I live in the Hutt Valley where my two grown up daughters live; the eldest of the two having given me a granddaughter and grandson. I have parents “to die for” amongst my close extended family, many of whom live locally, a man I am in love with and lots of affable acquaintenances. Workwise, I have a very satisfying job at the Hutt Hospital where I have worked almost continuously for 20 years.

One night in Nov 2005 I felt a hard rope-like lump in my breast so I made an appointment to see my GP. His words were “every breast lump needs to be checked urgently”. I left there feeling relaxed as I had been having 2-yearly mammograms privately since I was in my early 30s – my maternal grandmother had breast cancer in both breasts and I wanted to be extra careful.

One week later I was having mammography at the Hutt Hospital’s Radiology Dept. I had a few extra views taken, as usual (I had a long history of microcalcification in my breasts) but was told each time, via the radiologist, to keep having the regular mammograms, which I duly did. When I was whisked to the next room to have an ultrasound scan I became concerned.

Two days later I had been given an urgent consultation with one of the Breast Surgery Consultants at Hutt Hospital. He took lots of photos or scans and arranged for me to have core biopsies done, at Hutt Hospital’s Radiology Department, on both breasts. He told me before I left that day that “we are dealing with a breast cancer”. I accepted what he said and the shock set in later that evening.

The core biopsy result which I got a few days later fortunately showed I had cancer in one breast only. On my second visit to my breast surgeon he went through things with me; the main thing was that I needed a mastectomy. He asked if I would like to be seen by the Plastic Surgeons with a view to having a reconstruction. I said yes and I would like to have the operation all done at the same time. (I found out later that I could keep my own skin for my immediate breast reconstruction which was great news!) It’s hard to tell now that it’s not my own breast tissue inside the breast skin.

My daughters, grandchildren and I went shopping for the things I needed for my hospital stay and they lovingly paid for my nighties and dressing gown. We had fun and I was feeling optimistic. I did find myself saying out loud “oh no” repeatedly, usually when I was on my own at home and simultaneously felt the blood draining from my face and becoming shaky. The shock was setting in. However I knew first hand that I was in very good hands and the surgeons would do their very best. I knew I had a great team looking after me as part of my job at the hospital was organising appointments and finding mutual dates for surgery that would suit both of these busy surgeons for their patients.

My chemotherapy started 6 weeks after surgery and then went from late Jan to late June 2006. I then had 25 consecutive days of radiotherapy under the Radiation Oncoolgist (whom I also had dealing with as part of my role as P.A. to one of the Plastic Surgery Unit surgeons.)

I kept very well through all of the treatment and kept my full time job having the day of chemo off work and the next day and working full time apart from those 2 days every 2 weeks. Not long after that I got “on my bike again” and went to Wellington everyday leaving the Hutt at about 11am and returning to work about 12:45pm from the decent dose of radiotherapy.

Herceptin– the next part of my journey

When I went to have my third lot of chemo (out of 8) (I had mum with me this particular day) my medical oncologist very excitedly flicked through my medical notes and told me I was Her2 positive. His words were “this is good” and said a drug called Herceptin is very likely to be NZ Medsafe approved soon, followed soon after most likely by being fully funded by Pharmac.

He told me I would be a very good candidate for the 1 year (at 3-weekly intervals) Intravenous treatment and this would improve my percentage survival chances by one third (he drew graphs and explained the sums). He did say it was most unlikely that this drug wouldn’t be available in the public system and by the time I finished chemo and radiotherapy it should be up and running in hospitals – perhaps as early as August 2006.

He did say that in the unlikely scenario that I had to fund it myself, Herceptin would cost between $85,000 and $110,000. I asked him either way if he were me, what he would do. He said he would highly recommend I had the 1 year of Herceptin as this will maximise my survival chances.

Well the rest is history now and I am pleased to say I simply “followed doctor’s orders” and have taken another mortgage on my modest house, paid $70,000 and had 17 trips (every 3 weeks) to the medical oncologist in Palmerston North’s Aotea Hospital. I can now “got on with my life” knowing I’ve been in a fortunate position to have a house to get another mortgage on and a job to pay for it.