The day after Emma Crowley had organised a fundraising morning tea for a breast cancer charity, the then-24-year-old discovered a lump under her arm.
She asked a friend for advice. They both thought it was probably swollen glands or some other innocent explanation, but Emma went to her GP to get it checked out.
Her GP referred her for an ultrasound, which led to a biopsy and four days later Emma was called to come in and speak with her doctor.
The Human Resources Executive for law firm, Baldwins, was in Wellington for work and told her doctor she couldn’t come in for a few days.
“I was too busy thinking about my normal life. I’d vaguely thought that the worst case scenario might be cancer, but I just didn’t think it could happen to me,” Emma says.
So not expecting the worst, she went to her doctor’s appointment with her then four-year-old daughter in tow.
“The doctor said you have cancer and I was kind of in shock. I said let’s just get them off because I have uni exams coming up. I just did not realise how serious it all was,” Emma says.
Emma’s tumour was extremely aggressive and had already spread right though the breast and into the lymph nodes, which is why she’d discovered a lump under her arm.
A family friend, who had had breast cancer, contacted an oncologist and within a week of finding the lump, Emma was speaking to him about starting chemotherapy treatment.
She had an experimental regime of chemotherapy prior to having surgery and had to pay for a drug which is not subsidised in New Zealand for women with early breast cancer.
As a young woman, Emma’s oncologist spoke with her about the impacts of chemotherapy on her fertility, but warned her that because the cancer was so aggressive she needed to make a decision almost immediately as there wasn’t much time to pursue fertility treatment if that was something she wanted to do.
“I just thought I need to stay alive for the child I’ve already got, rather than worry about future children at this point. I don’t regret that decision at all and my oncologist was confident that because I’m young my fertility will eventually return to normal,” she says.
After six months of chemotherapy, her oncologist could barely feel the tumour in her breast anymore. She then had a mastectomy, radiation treatment and a further six months of Herceptin® treatment.
“In the beginning, I did find the chemo really hard and it wasn’t helped by the fact that my partner Wayne had just started nightshifts so I was alone at night. A friend or family would usually come over and stay with me because I was just really anxious otherwise.”
Emma did go and see a counsellor to help her deal with the emotional fallout of a breast cancer diagnosis at such a young age, but says she mostly coped by being very practical about what she needed to do.
“I guess I do feel a bit of resentment because I’ve had to go through all this at such a young age. But I kind of feel like I’ve done my time and I’m more resilient and determined because of it,” Emma says.
She has just recently had a breast reconstruction because she didn’t want to be “one-sided”.
“I guess because I have my partner Wayne and my daughter Caroline I didn’t really care too much about the breast reconstruction. I mean they weren’t my best assets anyway,” she laughs.
Emma says she still worries about the breast cancer returning, but tries to reassure herself with her oncologist’s words that her “odds are good.”
Now, nearly a year-and-a-half after first finding the lump under her arm, Emma wants to warn other women not to be complacent about breast health.
“Don’t be so naïve to think that you’re safe or that it won’t happen to you. Breast cancer can get you at any age. Be aware and always get any change checked out by your doctor.”