Incredible North Shore Mum Laura Matrljan shares more of her experiences after being diagnosed with breast cancer aged just 31 – and how today she is cancer-free and has made it her mission to help others. Earlier this year we brought you part one of her story, which you can read here. Now, in part two, she describes life post-cancer and getting used to her ‘new normal’.
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. I was a mum with two active boys aged 3 and 5.
When I began treatment (Laura had chemo for her Grade 3, Stage 1, ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS) which you can read about in part one of her story, here), I had a lot of support. Friends and family dropped by, called, sent cards and Facebook messages. Daycare looked after my boys four days a week for 16 weeks, free of charge. My in laws were also fantastic, taking my boys so my husband could clean and do washing, and just to give us a break. I was very lucky to have such a huge support system and am truly humbled by the whole experience.
Everyone told me how strong and inspiring I was, and how much they admired me. This was really lovely to hear, but at the same time, it also put a lot of pressure on me. When I felt like being sad, I would stop myself showing it because everyone thought I was so strong – I didn’t want to let them down. It sounds silly, but I sometimes felt that my emotions would be a burden for others. No one wants to be around sad people, right? So I would make jokes at my own expense, and then cry in the bathroom where no one could see me because I didn’t want to show how I was really feeling.
In fact, I still do this at times. Today people ask me, “But you’re better now right? You can get on with your life as normal!” But the answer is yes and no. Am I “better”? Well, my surgeon and my oncologists are confident the cancer is gone. And I am too, of course.
But despite my remission, I am always exhausted and I’m still affected by the months of treatment. My nails fell off and my skin has aged, I get sick much more easily and my body aches often. Every day I wake up, put on my makeup, tidy my fuzzy, post-chemo hair, and get on with my day. People see the happy, easygoing Laura that they know and love, not knowing that inside me there will always be an inner turmoil that will never go away.
But those are my demons to face and not anyone else’s. I will never just be able to get on with life as normal. I have to find a “new normal”. The treatment I had put me in to early menopause. I get hot flushes, have gained weight, and I will never be able to have another child. But I’m here – and on a daily basis, when I’m having anxiety or feel panic that the twinge of pain I felt last week while I was eating grapes could be the cancer returning, I have to remind myself that I’m ok. I’m sure it will get easier, but I have to make a conscious decision every day to be present and focus on the now instead of letting my mind wander and go to dark places. My breast nurse told me I just have to get to the two year mark. Then the three. Once I get to five years, the chances of getting cancer is just like anyone else on the street. So those are my focuses at the moment.
The experience of breast cancer also changed my perspective on motherhood. As a mum, it’s very easy to get caught up in the day-to-day monotony that comes with having children. Cooking, cleaning, washing, yelling at the kids! I still do all those things, but it’s tinged with a new appreciation that I’m still here to do them. Just being alive is no longer a given – it’s a privilege, and one that I will never take for granted. I watched my son walk in to his very first day of school this year, when last year I had no idea if that would even be a possibility. I have also realised the value of true friendships too, and the kindness of strangers.
Honestly, I try not to think too far in to the future. I want to be in the present as much as possible. I want to enjoy this time with my kids while they’re still little boys, watch them make new discoveries and learn new things. I want to spend time with my husband, go on holidays and hopefully renovate our house one day. During treatment, I was tested for the BRCA1 AND BRCA 2 gene and thankfully I was negative for both. This means so much for the women in my family as well as my two boys, knowing that at least they may not be at risk of getting breast cancer too, because they’re not genetically pre disposed to it. That’s something to be happy about for the future of my kids and family. I personally would also like to see, in the future, GP’S performing regular breast checks, not just when someone comes in with a concern. In Europe it’s a very common practice for women to have regular breast and gynaecological exams. Breast checks are also done at the same time as pap smears, and that’s not a completely common practice here. Here, most women only go when they think there’s a problem and sometimes that can be too late.
For me, breast cancer research is incredibly important. Seven years ago, the existence of hormone negative cancer (Triple Negative Breast Cancer) wasn’t even known. Breast cancer was breast cancer and treated the same, which meant those that those with TNBC cancer weren’t being treated effectively. One development due to research is finding that TNBC responds extremely well to chemo which is why, despite my clear nodes and contained cancer, I still had chemo. Before TNBC, I would probably have been sent home with a bunch of tablets and the cancer may have returned. TNBC can’t be treated the same way as hormone-driven cancer, and doctors know this because of research.
It’s vital these progressions in the treatment and detection of breast cancer continue. Research will eventually put an end to this insidious disease, and I can’t wait to be a witness to that momentous day.
I think the biggest message I want to get across to anyone reading this is that we can’t be complacent when it comes to our health. Age or genetic predisposition is not always going to be a factor. There is no rhyme or reason to cancer these days, and I am a prime example of that.
We also have to be familiar with our breasts. Check them regularly. And by regularly I mean the same time every month. Wait until after your period, lie down on the bed, or stand in the shower, use some oil or soap, and really massage your breasts and armpits. The idea is to become familiar with your breasts, so that if there are any changes, you will notice right away. Look for changes on the outside too. Dimpling, nipple shape, protruding veins….
A week before I found my lump there was a huge vein running across the affected breast. I didn’t even think that could have been a possible sign until after I was diagnosed. Arm yourself with a supportive GP and if they don’t listen, or you’re dismissed because you’re ‘too young’, find another GP. Kick down doors and be heard. Demand a biopsy. If you’re under 40, demand an ultrasound. Mammograms don’t work very well under the age of 40 as the breast tissue is still so dense. Until a cure for breast cancer is discovered, early detection is absolutely vital.
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.