Wasn't I too young to get breast cancer?

My name is Andrea Fairbairn and I have just turned 40. I live in Wellington and work in a Government Department. I was one of those healthy people – didn’t drink or smoke, vegetarian, exercised regularly and had no cancer in my family.

On a routine appointment with my GP, Dr Susanna Kent, she said, “while you’re here, I’ll just do a breast check”. After doing this, came “I think I’ll just refer you for a mammogram and ultrasound”. Being 38 at the time (with no family history), I put this appointment off. A few weeks later, I had a mammogram at Wakefiled radiology. Despite the technician being a bit rough with me, I sensed something was wrong; she kept leaving the room and coming back for more images.

The ultrasound technician went quiet as she focused on the lower part of my right breast. I said “is there is something there?” She said that it was probably a cyst or something like that but didn’t say much else. At 5pm that night, my GP rang and said she was referring me to a breast specialist as they’d found a lump. I still had not felt the lump myself but it had been picked up by the imaging.

I procrastinated in making the specialist appointment for financial reasons. If I went through the public system, I needed to wait but it was free. If I went privately (and needed a biopsy), it was going to cost nearly $500. In the end, my GP scheduled an appointment with a private clinic in Lower Hutt. The breast specialist analysed my history and advised that because of my age and background, the lump was probably 90% benign but I needed a core biopsy to make sure. I had planned a work trip later that week so I decided to put off the biopsy for a few weeks (as it was going to be a painful procedure and I didn’t want to do it before travelling).

I finally organised a core biopsy appointment at Wellington Hospital a few days before Christmas. This turned out to be daunting as I had to wait until 8 January for my results. It was a bit tense waiting but I had a strong feeling that I was fine - there was no way that I had cancer. Also, my appointment was on my 39 th birthday, so God wouldn’t pull a joke like that right?

On 8 January 2007, I went in for the ‘biopsy results’ appointment and was told I had breast cancer, that I needed surgery fairly quickly and that I would need radiation treatment too. I was in complete shock. This was ‘me’ we were talking about - wasn’t I too young? I felt like I was the last person in the world who would be diagnosed with cancer. My world fell on its head. My partner and I were devastated but there was a momentum that seemed to carry us along.

A week later, I had a lumpectomy and lymph nodes removed under my right arm. The surgery sites were quite painful but I did all the rehab exercises faithfully. Little did I know, there were further diagnoses ahead. My breast surgeon explained that the cancer had spread to my lymph nodes (seven of them) and that I would also need chemotherapy. I was told that my cancer was aggressive and early stage.

I then met Dr Dady, the oncologist, who explained that I would need six months of chemotherapy followed by six weeks of radiation. Still more diagnoses to come. Luckily, the cancer had not spread to my bones but …it was Her 2 neu positive and this was not good. It meant that my cancer was more aggressive and Dr Dady advised that it would be essential for me to have Herceptin for one year (at a cost of approximately $70,000 to $100,000).

He explained that Pharmac was not fully funding the drug for early breast cancer (but was for advanced breast cancer) and he disagreed with their position. I was reeling from the news, realising I would need to raise funds for Herceptin. Where would I get the money? Surely, I was a bad risk to the bank with a mortgage in my name only.

Overall, the chemo was the hardest part physically. Hair falling out, feeling nauseous, hard to eat, drugs all the time – it felt like it would never end. I worked part time through all the treatments. However, while going through aggressive and physically gruelling cancer treatments, I constantly worried about money and fundraising. I found the financial pressure impossible to forget.

Another difficult thing was that all my medical specialists (surgeons and oncologists) were recommending a year of Herceptin treatment and then Pharmac was telling the public that the medical experts were wrong. Who would you listen to – a cancer specialist I think.

Usually my Mum drove me to Palmie for my Herceptin appointments. I worked in the morning, drove to Palmie, had my treatment – another needle in the vein and intravenous fluids – then drove back. Often, I’d get home at 9pm and was exhausted.

The financial pressure though is still with me. I needed to raise $70,000 and luckily, colleagues, family and friends donated money to a fund coordinated by my colleague Marion. The fund raised $55,000. My Dad and I paid the rest. I tried to sell my house but it still hasn’t sold. My mortgage is high and I have struggled to pay it while working part time.

I finished my year of Herceptin treatment on 30 June 2008 and I am feeling that maybe life can be good after all as Herceptin has doubled my life expectancy over a ten year period. I hope that all women diagnosed with Her 2 neu positive breast cancer will get the support of their country and government, as well as family and friends and will not have to worry all the time about money like I and many others have.