Sheree McLeod, Westender reader, tells the story of her battle with cancer in her own words.
At the age of 35, I was pregnant with our 3rd baby, everything was going well… scans showed a strong heart beat, growing to correct gestation and then at 10.5 weeks I started bleeding and an ultra scan confirmed the baby had died.
A week after the miscarriage I went to my doctor and told him I didn’t feel well.
He told me that I wouldn’t feel well as I just miscarried … but my reply was that I had miscarried 3 times before and never felt like this!
I went home wondering what it was that I could do to check my own health.. and there it was a lump in my right breast found in the shower while using soap.
My world as I knew it would never be the same again. I had multi-focal (more then one tumour – 4 infact) in the right breast.
I had a right breast mastectomy with full auxillary clearance and insertion of portacath. The pathology came back worse than we expected. I had triple negative ductal invasive carcinoma breast cancer which is particularly aggressive and rare. Only 15% of all breast cancers are this type.
My largest tumour was 5cm in size with a few smaller ones in the same breast and I had 13 of the 26 lymph nodes with cancer in them. I had stage 3 breast cancer and full body scans at the time confirmed no further spread to any organs – phew! Thankfully my surgeon was aggressive was all I could think.
I started chemo 2 weeks and 2 days post my mastectomy and in that 2 weeks we did IVF and have 3 frozen embryo’s stored. Then I endured 4 months of chemo, 3 x FEC and 3 x Taxotere every 3 weeks. Two weeks post chemo (in August 2011) I had 25 sessions of radiation with terrible burns to under my arm and chest.
Still in 2011 I had approval from my oncologist to have my portacath removed as I was certain I had beaten the cancer and alls I had of journey left to do was my reconstructive surgery’s. I had my surgeon put me under for the procedure as I was traumatised from the original surgery when my mastectomy took 5 hours. Atleast 2-3 hours longer then it should have.
Apparently they had trouble threading it into my veins and I had scars all over my neck to prove it. They went down my right side in the end and the cording went across my chest to the port above my left breast. It always pulled and hurt me when I slept or moved my neck. The day that came out I was a very happy lady.
The following year (March 2012) I had a voluntary Left breast mastectomy with immediate Lat dorsi reconstruction and 3 infections before it healed correctly. In April I had my right breast reconstructed with the same Lat dorsi procedure and again had a hard recovery with infections. One of the three infections in this right side, I actually had 3 bugs and it took a lot of antibiotics to clear up.
The recoveries of such surgery’s was really difficult. In june 2012, I had some unusual pains and I had a CT scan that confirmed my body was still cancer free.
A short time after this – In July 2012 I found a lump at the top of my right reconstructed breast and had it biopsied. I had so much scar tissue that it was hard to feel the lump, but wanted it checked as it felt odd and I was getting stabbing pains coming from the location. The fine needle and core biopsy came back as fat necrosis and fibrosis… all good not cancer (I thought!) !
In November 2012 I had this same lump checked again as I felt like it was growing but also knew that my lymphodeama was particularly bad at this point and wasn’t sure if the oedema that was in my chest wall could have been making the lump appear bigger or not? While on holidays I went to the wesley breast clinic in brisbane to have it checked again. They even did a biopsy of a lymph node under my clavicle that looked suspicious.
I saw a new surgeon that afternoon as my surgeon was back in Rockhampton (over 300kms from where I was living), and he said it didn’t feel suspicious but if in doubt take it out. That afternoon he had me having an MRI and the next morning I was scheduled for surgery. The pathology showed it had grown from 1.8cm x 3cm to 4cm x 3cm in 4 months… it was growing up into my pec muscle and it was in-fact cancer again!
And the same type – triple negative… So I had a big chunk of my pec muscle also removed in this operation. Unfortunately the surgeon couldn’t get clear margins and would have punctured my lung if he had of gone any further and would have possibly had to loose my implant of my reconstructed breast.
He left clips in my chest to show where he thought he had left the disease. This was helpful in my radiation treatment to be guided by these clips. At that point with a PET scan they also found spread of the cancer to my sternum.
So December 2012 and January 2013 I completed 25 sessions of radiation again to the chest wall and for the first time to the sternum. Because I was in Brisbane I was given a new oncologist as all of my first lot of treatment from first diagnosis was done in Rockhampton (over 300kms from where I was living).
This oncologist wasn’t prepared to start me on chemo and wanted to do the wait and see approach.
I had two children, and I wanted to be aggressive with this and I just could not just sit around and wait for the cancer to pop up somewhere else so I seeked the advise of another oncologist who had a special interest in Triple negative breast cancer. He supported me in my decision to have chemo now rather then later but sent me for another CT scan to see where we were at now the radiation was complete.
This CT scan confirmed that while having radiation it spread to my lung and was confirmed by a bronchoscopy that is was cancer. February 2013 I started chemo with the new oncologist … three weeklies in a row with one week off a month and my chemo concoction was cisplatin/gemzar (gemcitibine) combo.
I had one round of chemo and it hurt my veins so bad that I decided to have my portacath put back in. They didn’t have any problems this time and they went completely down my left side this time. This portacath has been my friend… I love it. And bonus is… Is that it is smaller then my last one
Also when on chemo the cancer then spread to my spine so I was then put on zometa (a bone strengthener). My recent scan, October 2013 shows that my cancer is stable and the lung met has actually dissapeared completely.
To get this news was such a happy relief … all of those terrible dark days of weekly chemo (hardest thing I have ever done in my life) and all of my hospitalisations (from numerous complications) and my lymphoedema were suddenly worth it. Happy tears of relief from me and all of my loved ones.
I have been in hospital 4 times this year and 3 of those times were from July2013 which is when I decided to temporarily relocate myself and my two little boys over 1000kms away to concentrate on treatment as flying in an out for chemo every week to Brisbane (from where I live rurally and remotely) was extremely taxing on me and adding extra health risks to me. In April 2013, I was admitted to hospital in Mackay (over 300km’s from where I live) with an extensive blood clot in my left arm (non breast cancer side) that went right up to my neck. I was flown from Mackay to Brisbane with the Royal Flying doctors on request from my oncologist as there was concern about my portacath being rejected by my body which could have caused the blood clot and I possibly had some of the clot in my lung also. At this point I was put on clexane injections (blood thinning needles) twice a day for a year.
After a few months of needles and a very sore tummy with lumps and bruises everywhere, I found out I could take xarelto a tablet instead of the blood thinning needles. In July2013 I also completed a 3 week 10 session intense lymphodeama treatment which saw 13cm come off my arm from bandaging and massage.
My recent scan results have made it very clear that my decision to temporarily relocate myself and the children in July 2013 was a very good decision… as changing the boys schooling mid way through the year to such a big city school was very daunting on us with being from a country town with less then 2000 people. The only problem was, was that we own a Newsagency and Wade my partner of 12 years has had to stay behind to keep the shop afloat as that is our only source of income. He flys to us on a 2 week on and 2 week off basis which has been another hurdle, as the boys miss their father a lot.
Thankfully, these sacrifices we have made as a family has given us the result we were aiming for and hopefully I continue to respond to chemo (which it is possible at some point it can just stop working) and aim to even have NO EVIDENCE OF DISEASE… we can only hope.. as we have been told that my disease is incurable!
The day I flew into Brisbane with my children to reside was the day I was admitted into hospital with extremely low platelets of 12 and terrible bruising all up my legs.. My legs were covered. Straight away I knew this was where I needed to be.
The next hospital admission was from a terrible cellulitis infection in my right lymphodeama arm which required 11 days of IV antibiotics and when released from hospital I was on 16 oral antibiotic tablets a day. My oncologist was very aggressive in my treatment as he wanted to clear up the infection completely in order to have no more hold ups of chemo.
The next hospital admission was from a high temperature which ended up being a nasty chest infection. To say I am sick of hospitals is an understatement. The main side affects from the chemo I have been on are low bloods. I have lost count of how many blood transfusions I have had (could be as many as 20), but I know I have had atleast 4 platelet tranfusions, and have been regularly neutropenic also which has held up chemo numerous times. One time I was so neutropenic and my oncologist wanted to continue with chemo I was given 3 neulasta injections for 3 days in a row. That sent my neutrophils sky high that time.
My only hope now, is that I continue to respond on this chemo as I have recently been changed from cisplatin chemo to carboplatin chemo with the gemzar still as the neuropathy in my feet has become unbearable. My oncologist said that if he didn’t change the chemo’s the neurotoxicity would see me ending up in a wheelchair.
In May of this year (2013) I walked the Mothers Day classic two days post chemo and I personally raised $16050.00 and my team “GO TEAM MCLEOD” raised $28524.00.
My recent good news has given me that extra fire in my belly to keep up the strong fight. It is easier to get through those dark days knowing it is working.
I am currently doing another intense lymphoedeama treatment on my right arm with bandaging and massage as the celulitis infection put me back to square one. My arm is actually 10cm bigger then when I started last time with my treatment in July 2013. This condition is a life long condition to be maintained and will not kill me but is hindered by another condition of lipoedema that I was diagnosed with this year also by the Lymphaedema dr also. Lipoedeama and the fact I have a lot of scars from surgeries and scar tissue and I am chemo and steroids are all factors that hinder how bad my lymphaedema gets.. it just seems to be an uphill battle and my arm is sore more often then not especially when my hand fills with fluid and I cannot even clench my fingers.
:)I am now 38 and have two amazing little boys Riley aged 5 & Lachlan aged 7.
I just finished chemo no. 25 on 15th November….. 9 gruelling months but all totally worth it!