Judith Butler’s story.

If someone was to tell me I was going to be bald like Bull Allen for a summer, wear pink and sit naked in a bin covered by kiwifruit, I would have told them they had forgotten to take their medication.

But that is exactly what did happen. I kept a diary of the first five months which has been quite emotional reading back on it.

On Friday the 3rd of August 2001, age 40, I found a lump in my left breast in the shower. I just couldn’t believe it; it felt like a marble so hard and round.

Our daughter Jamie (10) was off to her friend’s place for the weekend and our son Ben (8) had videos to keep him happy. He had no idea of the thoughts running through my head. Steve came home to the news and I just lost it; my mother had died from bowel cancer at 42 and this was in my thoughts. I spoke to my sister and she was very positive as a friend of hers had been diagnosed the same week.

I didn’t sleep much that night. The next morning up I got and went off to Taupo for a girls’ weekend to do the half marathon for the second year running. I had a wonderful weekend and walked the fastest half marathon to date; I didn’t give the lump much thought as I was too busy, but looking back on the photos my eyes tell a different story.

Monday 6th August 2001, 12.20pm; this was the first of many appointments. My doctor’s reaction told me things weren’t too good; he rang for a mammogram, ultrasound and biopsy appointment ASAP. I left the doctor really upset; I think your body tells your mind what’s happening. I did cry a lot but not in front of the kids. Off to the radiographer for the next appointment; I was in having the ultrasound when the nurse said “have you come alone?”; I said no my husband is reading a fishing magazine in the waiting room. She said she thought he should come in; the tears were rolling down my cheeks, shock, worry the big C? What next etc, etc.

Many tears were shed waiting for my results; I used to get up and make a pot of tea and sit by the fire wondering what I was in for and the WHY ME??? Friday the 10th was the day I confirmed the results and I was off to the specialist the same day, John Harman, who offered to do lumpectomy surgery the following week in Auckland. But Steve and I decided to wait for surgery in Tauranga to keep the family in routine. It was a sense of relief to get an appointment for surgery; to start treating the breast cancer and moving forward.

Thursday 16th August I had to go into hospital to have dye injected into the lump for surgery the next day. Friday was surgery day and the tears were flowing so much I told the anaesthetist “Drug me, turn my tear tap off”. I woke after surgery to Steve and an oxygen mask on, slept all afternoon and woke up to Jamie and Steve in my room. Jamie was just a delight and cheered me up no end without even trying; she was asking so many questions and was rapt to take the oxygen mask out of the rubbish bin and home in her hoodie.

I was picked up the following afternoon by Steve in the fire station van. I went home with a drain in and the breast nurse did the follow up home calls (the lovely Anne Marie).

Friday 24th August - Results Day. We had come to terms with having the breast cancer and just wanting to get treatment moving, but were shell shocked to hear I had to have more surgery and that cancer was in my central node. It felt like we were going backwards; we were both so gutted. My breast was inflamed and John wanted to drain it but I said it was all good; looking back I wish I had because it was painful; I shouldn’t have been so pig headed.

Next lot of surgery was September 7th; we told the kids Mum has cancer. Jamie said “Are you going to die?!!” and Ben said “Are you going to lose your hair?” That evening we both let out a lot of emotion, you don’t release how it affects the people close to you. I enjoyed being around family and friends even though I had some low sympathy moments.

The next lot of surgery came and went and I recovered well. Thank goodness the cancer hadn’t spread. Headed to the oncologist on October 16th with sister Christine and Steve and it went as expected; chemo, radiation, tamoxifen for five years. It was a good feeling to start the treatment although I was a bit hesitant about the chemo (Cyclophosphamide and Adriamycin). Treatment started on October 25th with four lots of chemo three-weekly apart; I thought, “All good will be done by Christmas”. I didn’t sleep well the night before wondering how I was going to get on and whether I was doing the right thing, but after watching what mum went through thought let’s fight it.

First chemo was okay; went for a walk around the Mount to get my head around my feelings then off to be injected. I felt fine after the first treatment; home life was busy with dance exams, netball, soccer practice and Steve competing in the Fire Brigade Road Crash Rescue Challenge. The first week I had Ben home with a bug and Jamie admitted to A and E as she hurt her arm at dancing. A busy life is a good life, and there was no time to feel sorry for myself which was great.

Wig day was dreadful and I have never worn it; I should have listened to Steve. He liked the long blonde wig; it was weird trying on wigs when you still had a head of hair; bought two lovely hats though. I felt very flat and sorry for myself after this outing.

Family and friends were so supportive with meals, baking, taking the kids and just being there when needed. I will never forget one night there was a knock at the door and a fireman just handed Steve two bags of groceries; the guy didn’t know what to say but hoped this would help - two frozen pizzas, a tin of peaches, 2 litres of ice cream and fizz for the kids. Little things mean a lot.

I went to ‘Looking Good Feeling Good’ which was good. I met a lot of breast cancer ladies going through different stages of breast cancer and it was nice leaving with your face made up and a goodie bag of makeup.

I missed my next treatment as my bloods were too low; I was gutted as I had planned to finish chemo before Christmas and this meant I had to have one in January before going camping. On Day 19 my hair was blowing out in the wind so was time to get rid of it; got my friend to give me a no.1; man, your head is so white. It shocked the kids when they came home from school and I will never forget Steve’s face (I should have prepared him). I had to sleep with a beanie on – I couldn’t believe just how cold I felt. I listened to my body through chemo, resting when I needed to. I did have down times but the kids kept me busy and working part time the months just flew by.

I had my tamoxifen prescription to start a month after chemo and Richard North was happy with my progress through treatment. I took the kids on their annual camping holiday bald head and all; amazing the tan I got, head included.

I did have a wait to start radiation but got the call up in March for five weeks in Hamilton so I settled in to the Cancer Lodge during the week. This was rather enjoyable; I was one of the youngest so had my treatment early in the morning then walked around the lake. I met some wonderful people all suffering from different cancers and going through all kinds of treatment.

I was a weekend Mum but used to make all the lunches for the week and freeze them, named and ready for the week. The family coped well and I was pleased I chose to stay at the lodge.

My life has changed since having breast cancer. My mother never dressed me in pink and I never looked at anything pink; now half my wardrobe is pink and I have an amazing pink dress up box.

I have met amazing people through my journey, none more special than my Dragon Boat Ladies, the Boobops. I joined the team in 2006 and have been an active member ever since. I just love the sport. There is nothing better than racing against all the other New Zealand breast cancer teams. We are very competitive on the water and are all there for the same reason. It is an amazing sisterhood.

The camaraderie is just fantastic and the support and respect everyone has for one another is amazing. The girls promote Breast Cancer Awareness and encourage fitness and wellbeing through the sport. The courage and strength the women find through the support of fellow paddlers is a pleasure to be a part of.

I went back to Taupo to do the half marathon, ten years since breast cancer and ten years since my last half marathon. The Boobop Girls came to support me with 11 doing the actual walk. I couldn’t imagine not having them in my life.

I encourage all breast cancer ladies to find the closest dragon boat team to them and meet the ladies for coffee; you might just get hooked like so many others have. There is always a positive to come out of everything; mine was no waxing for the summer of 2001/2002 and meeting all the Boobop Babes who have become such close friends; people I would not have met without my breast cancer journey.

Keep smiling; listen to your body; rest when needed and laugh a lot.

Judith Butler (50 now)

For more information about the Boobops Dragon Boat team please email info@boobops.co.nz