Survivor Experiences with Breast Cancer

Breast cancer is estimated to affect 19,974 Australians this year, making it the most commonly diagnosed cancer in this country. This month, we hear from breast survivor Candace D'Souza, and highlight the exciting progress of Cure Cancer breast cancer researcher, Dr Niantao Deng.

In December 2008, Candace D’Souza was diagnosed with Stage III breast cancer. The mum of four was only 51 at the time. It’s taken her over a decade to come to terms with her cancer journey. ‘I had just started a new job when I heard the news. I was shocked when I’d had a mammogram and ultrasound, and a lump was detected. There’s no history in my family of breast cancer,’ she says.

‘On getting a positive biopsy result after my mammogram, I had a lumpectomy to remove a 4cm tumour. I needed further surgery to clear the margins too. An additional biopsy confirmed I’d require an axillary lymph node dissection to remove a further 13 lymph nodes. The next month, I began chemotherapy.’

Candace’s first round of chemotherapy brought around different results with many changes to her body. ‘After my first month of chemotherapy finished (six sessions of chemotherapy treatment three weeks apart on two different drugs), I began a Tamoxifen treatment. On a few occasions I had severe leg cramps but had no medication to relieve them. I got ulcers in my mouth, food tasted metallic, and I lost my hair. At the end of my treatment, I was exhausted and not sleeping well… and for the last two weeks I could hardly move about.’

With the cancer taking a toll on her body, Candace was no longer able to continue her normal lifestyle. ‘I had to quit my new job to deal with six months of treatment,’ she says, ‘but I was really lucky to have my husband, four children, and my sister supporting me. A group of friends rallied round to give additional support. It took a couple of years after treatment to get through it all and start working on making my life happier, with a future free from concern that I might have a relapse.’

Candace is no longer receiving treatment and has been given the all clear. She’s now living life with a renewed sense of purpose, explaining, ‘I don’t worry about cancer. I live my life a day at a time. I did a course to help me find a way forward so cancer wouldn’t drag my life down. I started volunteering as a counsellor so I could listen and support people.’

‘I am actively pursuing an interest in art and getting fit by running or walking daily. I’m writing poems and have even written and illustrated a children’s book. Although the treatment was harsh, I’m grateful it saved my life, which is why I donate to cancer research. It’s important to support scientists who have a passion to find cures.’

Dr Niantao Deng, Breast Cancer Researcher

For breast cancer diagnoses, it is becoming increasingly common to use neoadjuvant therapy (steps to shrink tumours) before surgery for successful results. Dr Niantao Deng and his team at the Garvan Institute and University of New South Wales would like to expand on this work by using a novel, single-cell sequencing technology to analyse breast cancers before and after the therapy. Through this process, they aim to understand why some patients respond well to the treatment and some don’t.

‘I’d like to understand the mechanisms of patients’ responses to treatment at the individual cell level,’ Niantao explains. ‘Because we have direct access to their samples before and after treatment, we see our findings as potentially translating into the clinic. Our ultimate goal is to find a way to overcome patients’ resistance to treatment and personalise it to ensure they have better outcomes.’

With these aims in mind, Niantao’s current interests also include using statistical methods to analyse and integrate large amounts of breast cancer data. He believes this will help him address critical questions, like how some patients respond to their disease and predicting how they will react to certain drugs.

To mark Breast Cancer Awareness Month this October, make a donation and help researchers like Dr. Niantao improve the outlook for breast cancer patients.

Breast cancer is a serious disease but the chances of successfully beating the disease are excellent if it is caught early. Regular breast checks, both at home and performed by a medical professional can help catch signs of any changes in breast tissue as soon as they form.

Schedule an appointment with your GP for a referral for a mammogram.

The fastest and easiest way to search for and book healthcare appointments online is through MyHealth1st.

Cancer Australia

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