Breast cancer isn't a single disease – but how many of us know that?
When I was diagnosed with early breast cancer in 2001, something my doctor said stood out: ‘Your cancer is HER2-positive.' I immediately started gathering information about ‘HER2', determined to find out what it meant for my outlook and treatment plan.
A diagnosis of HER2-positive breast cancer demands special and immediate attention because of its aggressive and fast-growing nature and the high risk for tumours to recur. To be told you have a disease so aggressive in comparison with other breast cancers is a shock that touches the lives of everyone around you.
"When I heard about an Australian oncologist participating in one of the world's largest breast cancer trials ever carried out, I drove five hours to Melbourne to hear him speak at a lecture."
I believe my tenacious determination to take control of this disease helped me into remission just 12 months after my diagnosis. When I heard about an Australian oncologist participating in one of the world's largest breast cancer trials ever carried out, I drove five hours to Melbourne to hear him speak at a lecture. After seeing his presentation, I committed myself to participating in the trial. I knew I had to fight this disease – for my 13-year-old son, for my husband, for myself. I was adamant that this disease would not disrupt our normal lives. I wanted my husband to be able to keep running the farm and for my son to enjoy his first year at secondary school.
I rang the oncologist who had made the presentation every week for months for an update on the trial, and I didn't stop (I couldn't stop) until he rang me with incredible news – I was going to be the first patient in the world to participate in the landmark clinical trial which eventually enrolled nearly 5,100 patients from 39 countries worldwide. Me – Donna Rullo from regional Victoria!
I faced many obstacles during my treatment but nothing compares to the distance of travel. Every 21 days for the next 12 months, I drove a 10-hour round trip to take part in the study. It was an arduous drive and it inspired me to set up a support group in Swan Hill to help women access some of the resources that are available to them, closer to their homes. Our latest achievement has been the full-time employment of a breast cancer nurse at the local hospital.
When you're first diagnosed with breast cancer, it's hard to imagine that the experience can turn out to be positive. I can remember the early days when I was losing my hair from chemotherapy – my mother, who has Alzheimer's, would ask me why I had such a silly haircut and why was I taking it easy lying down while my sisters were cooking for me and cleaning my house. I never thought I'd laugh at that, but I can now. For the last six years I've lived my life by a different set of criteria, and it's made me a happier, healthier person. It's helped my family too.
My advice to other women diagnosed with breast cancer: be informed, stay positive, work closely with your clinician to make decisions about the best treatment for you, listen to advice but remember you are an individual.