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I had never heard of triple negative breast cancer until the day I was diagnosed

by News Desk

For many years I have been involved in raising funds and awareness for breast cancer in my hometown of Alice Springs. I also supported my older sister through her breast cancer journey, not once but twice. In that time, I did not really take much notice of the different types of breast cancers until I was diagnosed in August 2021, with triple negative breast cancer (TNBC).

Family history

Breast cancer runs deep in my family, unfortunately traversing both sides. Up until my diagnosis, I honestly thought I had dodged the ‘big C’ bullet. My sister was diagnosed with at 35 and then again at 38. My maternal grandmother was diagnosed when she was in her 40s. And my fraternal great aunts (my grandmother’s four sisters) were also all diagnosed in their 40s. Despite this strong family history of breast cancer, my genetic test results for mutations in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes came back negative, which at the time was a welcome relief. So, when a breast cancer diagnosis did come at age 40, I was still shocked and wondered why was it triple negative?

From L to R: Angel, her mum Patty, sister Sharlene and sister Karina, who had breast cancer twice. Source: supplied.

My diagnosis

Before my diagnosis, I was immersed in work as a Customer Operations Specialist at the Cochlear Care Centre and sweating it out at CrossFit five to six days a week. I was at my healthiest and fittest. I did not find the lump in my breast – it was through an innocent act of my partner that first brought it to my attention.

One cold, late July morning last year, my partner reached over to cuddle me, and as his hand brushed across my breasts, he felt a lump. Initially I dismissed it, as I had my period, and like many, my breasts can become tender and lumpy around this time. I did keep an eye on it though. Routinely checking my breast, I noticed that the lump was gradually getting bigger and becoming slightly sore. Simple movements such as jumping and skipping while exercising, started to cause my left breast to really hurt.

At this stage, breast cancer still did not cross my mind – but on my partner’s urging, I made an appointment to see the doctor. She prescribed antibiotics, thinking the lump was from an infection. To be on the safe side, sent me for a mammogram and ultrasound the next day.

The results revealed a ‘highly suspicious malignant lump,’ which led to an immediate referral to an oncologist that same day who scheduled a biopsy. Within two days of my biopsy, I was diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer. I couldn’t believe that in the space of just two weeks I had gone from being ‘healthy’ to having breast cancer.

I unwittingly thought that because the diagnosis had the word ‘negative’ in it, this was a good thing! Triple negative breast cancer or TNBC, is called ‘triple negative’ because it doesn’t have any of the three common receptors – oestrogen, progesterone and HER2 – that are typically found on the surface of breast cancer cells and are often the target of available treatments.

Around 15 per cent of all breast cancers are triple negative, with women under 40, more likely to be diagnosed with it.

So, I began treatment immediately with a very high dose of chemotherapy, which is typical for triple negative breast cancer treatment. A chemotherapy course can go for four to six months, depending on the severity of the breast cancer. I had chemo every two weeks, and after my first session I did not feel any different, thinking ‘wow, this is going to be OK.’

By the second round of chemo though, my hair began to fall out. I would stand in the shower and clumps of hair would be in my hands. It was confronting. I did experience slight nausea but wasn’t hurling over the toilet vomiting or experiencing any other major side effects.

Despite it all, I still felt lucky.

As my chemo treatment continued my side effects increased (fatigue, loss of taste, joint pain and weight gain). However, compared to other women I connected with in support chat groups, I still felt I’d gotten off quite lightly. One non-medical piece of advice my oncologist told me was to stay off Google. This was not the type of breast cancer you wanted to Google. Not going to lie, I Googled and what I found did not give me much hope. However, once I was able to land on trusted Australian sites, I found some helpful and reassuring information.

Exercise plays a big part in recovery

As exercise played such a big part in my life pre-diagnosis, I did find it difficult that I was not as strong and fit as I was pre-treatment. Rather than dwell on this as a step backwards, I’m focussed on getting my body strong again and as healthy as possible. Keeping active has been a non-negotiable for me; it has helped me establish a positive mindset, enabling me to get through the doubts and difficult days.

Angel with her partner Alex in December 2021. Source: supplied.

Being diagnosed with breast cancer was a wakeup call. While good health has always been important to me and I was taking care of myself, I took it for granted. I have realised that I do need to put myself first – health and happiness. We don’t know how much time we have got so for me, it’s important to help and support others, but also not shy away from asking for
help and support too.

Family and friends often feel helpless when you are going through cancer. Asking for help was difficult for me at first but knowing when to say ‘yes’ was a positive and empowering step in my journey.

Where to from here?

After four months of intravenous chemo, a lumpectomy and completing four weeks of radiation, I thought I was done. Unfortunately, though, that’s not the case. Another six months of oral chemo, which will hopefully lower the rate of reoccurrence, has been recommended. Do I want to do this next lot of treatment and deal with the new side effects? No, not really. But I choose to live, so will do anything I can to keep this at bay for as long as I can. I want to be here for many years to come so that through my personal experience, I can help increase much-needed awareness of TNBC in the hope that I can help at least one person in their breast cancer journey.

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