Being pregnant can be tough. The hormones, the morning sickness, the tender breasts… and as tough as it is, no mama to be could (nor should) ever imagine that the changes to her body were intensified with life-threatening breast cancer.
Sadly, this was the reality for super mama, Lee-Anne. Diagnosed earlier this year, at 31 weeks pregnant and during a world-wide pandemic, Lee-Anne is real, honest and open about her battle with breast cancer and the harsh reality of trying to save her life, whilst still trying to be a good wife to Gordon and a mother to her six-month-old boy; Hugo.
Breast cancer is the number one cancer for women and affects over 3300 New Zealand women every year. It doesn’t matter whether you are rich or poor, young or old, pregnant or not, cancer knows no boundaries. With October being the month of Breast Cancer Awareness, we wanted to shine a light on Lee-Anne’s story in a hope to inspire women who are facing a similar journey, encourage preventative action and to raise awareness of this very common disease.
Tell us a little bit about your so far journey. When were you diagnosed with breast cancer, and how did you find out?
I was diagnosed officially on the 26th Feb - I was 31 weeks pregnant with our first child. I had gone to the GP with a lump I was worried about, he didn’t think it was anything but still sent me for an ultrasound. I’m glad he did. When the tumour was removed, it measured 170mm – HUGE.
What has happened since you were diagnosed?
Since I was diagnosed, I have had a unilateral mastectomy of my left breast, including the removal of 27 lymph nodes from under my arm, which the cancer, unfortunately, had spread to. I have had 12 of the 16 rounds of chemotherapy I need to have. Along with countless scans and tests.
What was your response or how did you react when the doctor told you that you had cancer?
Unfortunately, the way I found out was pretty horrific for me. I got a call from the receptionist at the GP’s office, and she asked if when my Dr booked the appt for the next day, that he confirmed I was bringing a support person with me. I had booked the appt online pre-empting my results being back. I said to her, “that doesn’t sound good then”, and she just went silent, could hear a pin drop. She stuttered for a bit and said: “oh no, this isn't right, I shouldn’t be telling you this I'll put you through to a nurse”. So before I even spoke to a nurse I knew it was cancer.
My immediate thought when I hung up, was “I don’t want to die, I'm so scared and I don’t want to die”. I was home alone at the time, but luckily my husband was only two minutes away from home - I phoned him and I'm sure it only took him 30 seconds to get back!
What made you go to the doctor in the first place?
I found the lump during my second trimester and initially thought it was pregnancy-related. My other breast felt lumpy too so I didn’t think much of it. This went on for a few weeks, and then one day at work I was thinking about it, and my stomach just dropped – and I felt sick about it. I called Gordon straight away in a panic so he organised for me to see the GP.
What has been your biggest challenge to date?
The biggest challenge was early on in my diagnosis when things started getting underway. I was diagnosed on the 26th Feb, and then NZ went into level 4 lockdown on 23rd March. I had to be induced early with my baby, at 37 weeks, he was born 10th April, and 6 days later go back into hospital to have the mastectomy on 16th April. My husband was unable to come and see me in the maternity ward so we had to ‘bump into each other’ going to see Hugo in NICU. I was in the hospital for 7 days in total when I had him, discharged Sunday afternoon and back in on the following Thursday. We were lucky the nurses were amazing and so good letting Gordon in to be with me in the days leading up to the birth, so I didn’t have to do all of that alone. Even though the birth ended in an emergency caesarean, it was a blessing in some ways as Gordon got to go and spend a lot of time with Hugo in NICU which he wouldn’t have been able to do had he been ok and on the ward with me.
Being dropped off at the entrance to the hospital on surgery day, and having to go through it all on my own was something I would never have dreamed of. Not being able to have my husband there when I woke up, or even come in and visit me was so hard. And having to be away from my newborn baby was just insane - I was so scared that the time apart would have an impact on our bonding.
What keeps you going?
Knowing that my diagnosis wasn’t terminal – this keeps me going. I'm not going anywhere anytime soon, and everything I am going through at the moment is to make sure I'm here for a long time yet!
What keeps you up at night?
I am a ridiculous over-thinker. Every ache and pain I have panics me, and I go to the worst-case scenario that is has spread. These thoughts always seem to come when my head hits the pillow.
What has this experience taught you?
Life is too short, and no one knows what is around the corner for them. It's taught me to let go of grudges, to reach out to those who you have wanted to take to but something has been stopping you. To not give a damn what anyone else thinks of you – because it doesn’t matter. And it taught me that even if you only have one breast it doesn’t make you any less sexy or any less of a woman!!!
What is a quote that you live by?
It’s not a quote, but something I live by:
I have a husband to love and a son to raise – I'm not going anywhere yet!
How do you manage to look after yourself and to be a mama to a beautiful 6-month-old boy?
I didn’t do the best job at looking after myself in the early days, there was a lot of emotional eating, unfortunately, and that combined with the steroids meant there has been some unwanted weight gain. BUT - I am now trying to make sure I am eating a lot better and getting out and about for walks with Hugo in the pram. It’s not just about physical health though – mental health plays a big part in this journey. I have had to make a point of keeping the communication open so that my husband is fully aware of how I'm feeling and if I need a break or some time out to just process things and bring my mind back to being centred again.
Is there any advice you would like to share with people going through a similar journey?
My advice would be to let people in. You can't go through this journey alone, so let your family and friends help you out, let them look after you, be open with them about what's going on. Don’t try and keep it all inside and to do it all yourself.
Lee-Anne is helping to raise funds for Breast Cancer Foundation NZ to help them with their research to try and have zero deaths from breast cancer in NZ. You can donate here:
To follow Lee-Anne’s journey, click here.