North Shore Mum Laura Matrljan shares her incredible story after being diagnosed with breast cancer – and how she is now helping others.
I was diagnosed with breast cancer on 1 May 2015 and twenty days later, on May 21, I was in surgery.
I was 31 years old.
Before my diagnosis, I was a regular mum of two active boys 3 and 5, doing regular mum things. I had a casual job, and looked after my family. I loved to cook, sew, and spend time with my friends having a wine and a giggle. Then, one day I was lying down in bed watching my iPad. I often checked my breasts (something my mother had drummed in to me from very early on) so I was very familiar with the look and feel of them. When I felt my breast that day, straight away I felt a small mass in my right breast. I had just finished my period and often found my breasts would get hard and sometimes lumpy during that time of the month, but this was different. I asked my husband to have a look and he could feel it too.
Initially, I was dismissive. It was just lumpiness after my period and nothing more, I thought. Deep down, I was slightly panicked but I comforted myself by saying “you’re too young for this to be anything sinister. “ I instantly took to Dr Google, and it said that the majority of lumps discovered are fibroids and therefore benign. Plus my age did not match up with the average age that most women are diagnosed. But when I told my mum about it, she insisted I made an appointment to see my GP the next day. He ordered an ultrasound and from there they recommended a biopsy, all while reiterating that it was likely fibroids or dense tissue. But it was cancer, and my cancer was aggressive. It was a Grade 3, Stage 1, ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS). DCIS is the name for abnormal changes in the milk ducts of the breast and apparently non-invasive. I was also diagnosed as having triple negative breast cancer which means that it wasn’t hormone driven and therefore meant I was at a higher risk of reoccurrence.
Hours after my diagnosis, I was numb. I couldn’t eat, cry, sleep, or even talk. My mind was consumed with negative thoughts about what my future would bring and not seeing my babies grow up. I called the Cancer Council and spoke to one of their operators who was really great at answering any questions that I had. As the days went on I felt a huge range of emotions. Fear was a big one, sadness, but mostly I felt betrayed. For the best part of four years, my breasts had fed and nourished my children and kept them alive, and now they were trying to take my life? I was very angry too. I’d done nothing to cause my breast cancer. Why me? I was 31! I had given birth and breastfed children, two things that supposedly help prevent getting breast cancer. I also had to think about how I was going to tell my kids. I spoke with a friend and she suggested a social story which she kindly put together for me to read to them. It basically consisted of a few pages and on each page was a small blurb about what would be happening to mummy, accompanied by a small picture. There was a picture of day care, a picture of our family, a hospital, and most importantly a picture of a person wrapped up in bandages. This was crucial as the boys would not be able to touch me and vice versa for a quite a while, so they needed to know that they had to be gentle with me. When the time came to read it, I made my husband do it as I knew I couldn’t without choking up. They were great about it and asked to read it again. It became a great tool for my husband during those weeks I was recovering at my mums.
Once I knew I was having chemo, I made the decision that I would shave my head. I think, for me, this was a way to take back a little bit of control. I couldn’t stand the idea of waking up to clumps of hair on my pillow!! I also didn’t want my baldness to be a shock to my kids. I have some very dear friends who own a barber shop, so surrounded by some very special people in my life, I had a head shaving party, drank champagne and ate cheese. It was a very confronting, emotional experience. I tried not to look at anyone, especially my mum and dad. As a parent, I can’t imagine what it must have been like, seeing your child go through a serious illness.
I always found chemo a very confronting experience. Chairs and chairs of sick people, hooked up to beeping IVS, and nurses dressed in outfits that looked like hazmat suits. Also, my veins were terrible, and they always struggled to find a decent vein to put the cannular into, which meant the procedures could be quite painful. My hair began to fall out, and my scalp itched like crazy! Chemo strips your body of white blood cells, so you have zero immunity. I was isolated from everyone, and people had to wear masks around me. It was very confronting and I felt very alone. Once again, I couldn’t be around my kids as they were basically walking petri dishes of germs. The nurses were warm and wonderful, and the biggest supports through this time were my mum and husband. My mum came with me to every appointment, chemo, blood test, everything. As a mum myself, I don’t know how she did it. Watching your child go through absolute horror, and not being able to fix it must have been incredibly hard. My husband came to what he could but he continued to work through my treatment, and had taken over looking after our boys and the house as much as he could to allow me to rest, which was incredible. I had a very dear and beautiful friend who organised three months of meals for us, donated by friends, strangers, day care mums… they kept us fed and I will be eternally grateful. When you have cancer, you FEEL alone, but I never was.
Want to do something to help? Join the North Shore Mums team at the Miss Muddy Fun Run, which is happening at St Ives Showgrounds on Saturday 29 October. The event raises money for the McGrath Foundation. Miss Muddy is a female-only obstacle and mud festival which includes mud, colour, climbing, crawling, slipping, sliding and lots and lots of laughter.