My whole world has been turned upside down

I'm Sue Walthert.  I was a 52-year-old GP, happily married to Edi, mother to Emma, 25 and Jeremy, 24. Edi and I lived on 5 acres of land with 3 sheep (plus 5 lambs this spring) and one neurotic dog, 10 minutes’ walk from the main street of Dunedin. We were living the good life and Her 2 positive breast cancer was something that happened to other people, to my patients, but not to me!

In April 2007 a routine mammogram changed all that. Within weeks, I had lost a breast and been told I needed chemotherapy and Herceptin. I faced an agonising question: 9 weeks Herceptin and a planned trip to Switzerland to see our daughter; or 12 months Herceptin and the holiday money goes into Roche’s bank account.

I look back and realise how shocked I was during that decision time. As a Doctor, I don’t think I realised how hard it is to make an informed decision when you have just emerged bruised and disfigured from diagnosis and surgery. My oncologist answered the question for us – the weight of evidence favours the 12 month Herceptin treatment.

I have just finished my 6 months of chemo and 12 months of Herceptin. This week I had my ovaries removed so I can stop tamoxifen and go onto an aromatose inhibitor for 5 years. These two drugs are used to reduce the oestrogen in our body where a woman has had oestrogen sensitive breast cancer. Along with Herceptin, they will hopefully keep me cancer free.

Early December I will have a prophylactic mastectomy and bilateral reconstruction. New boobs for Christmas!

Just to read the list of treatment is exhausting! To experience it is something else, my whole world has been turned upside down, and I wonder if I will ever be normal again. Whatever comes next will be a new normal and although I will soon have breasts again, they will be scarred and unfeeling reminding me of the cancer.

So, my next task is to learn to face this positively, to walk proudly into my new life and make the most of it. I have company. The women who have endured breast cancer walk beside me; there is support from the Cancer Society, BCAC network, my family& friends, my doctors &nurses and my colleagues. There is wisdom in what is written about this journey, in ‘The Pink Magazine’ and the many breast cancer books and websites but there is also plenty of rubbish written that requires us to stay vigilant and critical.

I have now done my homework about Herceptin. I researched the literature, engaged in public debate with Pharmac, Roche and politicians. I even challenged my own profession to take care in how it uses drugs, not to waste money on simple things so that money might be available for high cost effective treatment like 12 months of Herceptin.

I have another article due out in the October Pink Magazine and my Oration speech given at the 2008 GP conference contains my own breast cancer story and will be published in a general-practice journal. My writing zeal surprised me, not something I had even imagined doing before breast cancer.

The Dalai Lama says cancer is a ‘gift’ because it enables us to become truly aware of life’s fragility. I am still too angry with breast cancer to call it a gift. Maybe someday, I will call it a catalyst to a better life, a life after breast cancer.