Campaigning for Herceptin

Hi. I’m Chris Walsh and I live at Waitarere Beach, a small village between Levin and Foxton. My partner Sue and I have a beautiful black Labrador called JJ and two cats that control activities in the house but still refuse to do housework. I work at Victoria University in Wellington and this year graduated with a Doctor of Philosophy in Nursing.

I have a history of breast abscesses so am never surprised to see my breast red and swollen. Late in 2005 I crawled to my GP in great distress suffering from pain, a red and swollen very hard breast and hot and cold shakes. The antibiotics seemed to resolve the symptoms but it wasn’t until February the following year that I returned to GP to have another matter attended to that I asked her to do a breast examination. I wasn’t completely happy with my breast as it was hard, still red and I thought there may be a lump there but if there was it was so big I couldn’t believe it was cancer. My GP told me she didn’t think it was cancer and couldn’t feel any swollen lymph node but at least had the good sense to refer me on to a breast cancer specialist surgeon. I have regular annual mammograms so was not concerned when I had a biopsy, repeat mammogram and ultrasound even though the technician and surgeon both found my lymph swollen and what appeared to be a lump in my breast.

The surgeon rang me with the bad news. He told me surgery was the best option followed by chemotherapy and radiotherapy. Later I learned that Herceptin would give me an even better chance of beating this cancer. I was shocked, confused and angry. Shocked because ‘this could never happen to me’, confused because the mammogram had missed this huge lump and angry with myself for not getting on to this in 2005 when my infection hadn’t resolved. But most of all I was scared-of dying, of not seeing my partner again, of being with my family and of enjoying the company and laughter of my friends. I felt I had let myself down and others. I told Sue she would have to drag me into the theater for them to cut my breast off. But as the seriousness of the cancer dawned on me I couldn’t wait to get rid of this breast and get treatment going.

The surgery was easy and pain free. I worked hard on my exercises to reduce any complications especially lypmhodema which I was terrified of. I used complimentary therapy as well to support the healing throughout my treatment. The chemotherapy left me feeling sick, but the steroids they give you came to the rescue. My hair fell out and the wig wasn’t me so I never wore it, hats were better. The radiotherapy was easy, until the last few days. My chest wall was a weeping mess, but at least it healed within a few weeks. Having the intravenous Herceptin was easy- writing out the cheque for $5,000 every 3 weeks was very distressing.

Leading the campaign to take Pharmac to court over their refusal to fund 12 months of Herceptin has reinforced my belief that health care and politics are inseparable. It has also meant I have met some fabulous women and become involved in health advocacy. Pharmac have got this one wrong and they are spending unlimited resources to convince everyone that 3 treatments of Herceptin is ‘as good as’ 12 months when the evidence for 3 treatments just isn’t there.