Young Kiwi opts to stay in UK for breast cancer treatment

More than 2 years have passed since Jessica Weller received her breast cancer diagnosis and she is grateful she made the decision to stay and be treated in the UK. 

Jess was 12,000 miles from home and living in London when she was diagnosed with Stage 3 HER2+ breast cancer at age 27. “I had just got back from a trip to Croatia when I noticed a constant pain in both breasts. It was so painful, I couldn’t even touch them.” 

Following an appointment with her GP, Jess was quickly referred to hospital for an ultrasound. “On Monday I had the ultrasound and they found a black spot on the screen. I was given a biopsy right then.” By the following Monday (in June 2013) Jess had received the diagnosis. “It was pretty quick.”

While admitting it was a huge shock given her age, Jess had prepared herself for the worst. “I asked about getting a psychologist as well as fertility treatment at the next appointment.” 

After a stressful few weeks not knowing whether she could receive treatment in the UK on a work visa she was told she could. “I wanted to stay in the UK,” says Jess. “I wasn’t sure if I could get Herceptin in NZ.” 

After 6 weeks of fertility treatment, Jess began chemotherapy to shrink the tumour. By December 2013 Jess had completed her chemotherapy. She had a lumpectomy one month later followed by 4 weeks of radiotherapy. 

“The toughest thing was being offered a job the day after I got diagnosed,” says Jess, who is a teacher. “Travelling 2 hours a days to work and home again while going through chemo and its side effects was exhausting.” 

As part of her treatment, Jess was prescribed one year of Herceptin, a targeted therapy for patients with HER2+ breast cancer. While Herceptin was available in New Zealand at that time, it was, and still is, only available intravenously (by slow infusion into a vein, either directly or through a port-a-cath. However, in the UK, Jess was able to receive her final seven rounds of Herceptin via the sub-cutaneous (injection under the skin) method. “I got a new oncologist who recommended it,” says Jess. 

“There were definitely advantages. It cut down the treatment time (a nurse injects it over 5 minutes) and was much more convenient. A couple of times I was able to go in [to hospital] after school and get it which I could not have done if I was having it [intravenously] through the port – the port took up to an hour and a half,” says Jess. 

Since returning to New Zealand early this year, Jess learned about the lack of funded cancer medicines available here compared with Australia and the UK. “If I can go to the UK on a working visa and get the drugs I need there then surely we should be able to access the same treatment here.” 

Says Jess: “It’s really sad that these drugs are not funded in New Zealand. Money has become more important than life.”

Check out Jess Weller's TEDx talk - "How cancer gave me purpose" - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wx7M9YOFloA

 

7th December, 2015 

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