Breast cancer—a survivor's story
Thursday 7 October 2021
Feisty, fabulous, and community-spirited, Kerry Nolan lives at Palmwoods in the Sunshine Coast hinterland and has worked in the Sunshine Coast Hospital and Health Service for 15 years, where she’s currently an administration co-ordinator for a COVID-19 vaccination clinic.
Kerry and her partner have been together for 25 years, “but we eloped five years ago after we celebrated my last cancer treatment,” she laughs. They have five kids between them. “We’re a blended family. We have his, hers, and ours, as we like to call them,” Kerry says.
Kerry inherited a gene mutation which can increase a person’s chances of developing breast (and other) cancers. She has survived four bouts with breast cancer.
This is her story.
Kerry first discovered she had breast cancer while on holiday.
“I was visiting my brother and sister-in-law and enjoying the lovely surrounds of Mandurah, which is just a beautiful little seaside town (in Western Australia), and it was nice and relaxing.
“Of all things, I dropped the remote control behind the lounge suite, and when I bent down to pick it up, I bumped my left breast and the pain was excruciating,” she said.
“So I went to a GP (in Perth) and they did an ultrasound and that is when we found a small tumour in my left breast, and I also had a large cyst close to it that had become infected—hence the pain I had encountered.
“He sent me back to my GP here on the Sunshine Coast and from there we started my journey.
“That was fifteen years ago—I was forty-three years old.
“It was an adenocarcinoma, which is the invasive type.
“I had been screening early, because my older sister was diagnosed at the age of thirty-five with breast cancer—when I was thirty-two.
“So, every twelve months I would get an ultrasound done, because my breast tissue is very dense, so a mammogram wasn’t going to diagnose any abnormalities.
“And when we found that lump, my annual breast screen was actually booked for two months’ time.”
Kerry was not aware at that time that she carried a BRCA gene mutation.
“Not at that point, because she (Kerry’s older sister) was the first person in our families and throughout our history who had actually been diagnosed with breast cancer.
“So eight years after my older sister was diagnosed, my mother was diagnosed in her early 60s—also with left-sided breast cancer—and then five years after that I was diagnosed and we were advised to go and get the gene testing done, which was performed by a beautiful group of people down there at the Royal (Brisbane and) Women’s Hospital. And the results were that we were positive to the BRCA gene (mutation).”
[The BRCA genes are tumour-suppressing genes. Some high-risk mutations in either the BCRA1 or BCRA2 gene disable an important error-free DNA repair process, significantly increasing the risk of developing breast, ovarian and certain other cancers. Each child of a genetic BRCA mutation carrier—regardless of whether the carrier is the mother or father—has a 50% chance of inheriting the mutated gene. Women with harmful mutations in either the BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes have about five times the normal risk for breast cancer and thirty times the normal risk of ovarian cancer. (It affects risk for certain cancers in men with the mutation, too).]
“In my family we have four girls and two of the sisters have the gene and two of the sisters don’t have the gene. And it just worked out that sister one was negative, two was positive, three was negative and four was positive. And I'm number four."
Kerry started treatment immediately.
“We went for surgery. I was a Category 1 patient on the public system, and I was done within three weeks of diagnosis—I had a lumpectomy to my left breast, which was actually quite extensive.
“When they got in there the doctor didn’t like the look of the tissue, and she said it just looked unusual, so she took a larger bit than just around the tumour itself. And the results of that were that it was in fact showing signs of further breakouts of adenocarcinomas within that tissue. So that was a good call by the surgeon. She has been my lifesaver every time since I’ve had recurrences.
“Twelve months after my first diagnosis I went back for my yearly check up with the surgeon to see how things were going so and a mammogram was performed, and an ultrasound, and on that mammogram I had a right-sided ductal carcinoma tumour. I also had two adenocarcinomas which were diagnosed once we did the biopsies.
“So, 12 months … there was a bit of a shock. I can’t tick my bucket list—cancer done! Apparently, I wasn’t done, so I had another lumpectomy to take the tumours out.
“And the doctors were telling me that I really should consider having a double mastectomy. And because I was in my early 40s, I struggled with that.
“It took me about three months to finally … decide that, yes, I should have a double mastectomy … because my doctors were telling me that they don’t like the looks of my tissues every time they go in, and they feel that I will just continually have tumours popping up, left, right, and center.
“So, a decision was made, and I was referred to the Mater Public Hospital to have a double-mastectomy.
“They performed a tram flap, which meant they took the fat out of my stomach and rebuilt breasts for me.
[TRAM flap is a type of surgery used to rebuild the shape of the breast after a mastectomy. A muscle in the lower abdomen called the rectus abdominis, along with skin, fat, and blood vessels, is moved from the lower abdomen to the chest.]
“So, for me that was a win-win—tummy-tuck, bigger *****, and no cancer! What more could a woman want?
“It was actually 12 hours of surgery, and it took me quite a few months to recover from all of that, and even in hospital itself, about day three, I became quite depressed that I had removed my breasts, and I wanted to know why I had done that.
“And this man appeared at my bedside about two hours into my crying bout and introduced himself as my surgeon, and I sort of said, Jim, oh that’s right, this wasn’t all about plastic surgery, this was actually about a cancer diagnosis.
“And he said that they had found seven active tumours in the breast tissue. There were three in one side and four in the other, and they were all adenocarcinomas.
“And I hugged him, and he said most people don’t react that way. I said no, I'm here feeling sorry for myself and you've just given me the diagnosis and the reason why I just did what I did. And I thanked him very much for that. He gave me some hope in life again.
Life goes on …
“I went on with my life very happy, knowing too well that I had done everything in my power to not get breast cancer again and my surgeons gave me a 99% cure rate. Yes, we have removed as much breast tissue as we can, and we have a 99% chance of you not having cancer again.
“And I was two weeks off being discharged- (5 years postop) from the Mater. I received my last appointments in the mail to go back to the clinic one last time to be then handed over to my GP and a week before receiving the letter I discovered a lump under my left breast and it was a hard lump and it was about a centimetre in diameter. It wasn't painful.
“But I said to myself, it's just a cyst you don't have any breasts anymore. It couldn't possibly be anything other than a cyst. So, I tended to ignore it.
“And a few days later it was still there and hard, and it wasn't getting sore, so I decided I best go and see my GP who sent me straight in for an ultrasound.
“And on that ultrasound, we discovered that I in fact had another adenocarcinoma on my left breast.
“So that really threw me for six.
“The wonderful doctors at the hospital did a biopsy on it straight away. We got the results back within a day or two to say that yes, it was. Not a nice tumour either. It was quite aggressive and that I needed to have surgery ASAP.
“See, that one was really hard to take.
“And I totally understand that it only ever takes that one cell that can be left behind or … and who knows why it suddenly decides to mutate and pop back up in your life again.
"So that one really affected my whole family more … more than the rest of them.
“I have two daughters and they have screened and one of them has the BRCA2 and one of them doesn't.
“So, of course my older daughter has been thinking along the lines of also going down the road of double mastectomy, and also about removing her reproductive organs to ensure that one doesn't go to the other and we stay safe.
“So, this of course has put a lot of thought into her mind—if she has the double mastectomy, is she still at risk?
“I have coached her and advised her that provided she continues along the pathway of continual screening, especially as she still has her natural breasts. So, she's having ultrasounds every two years, mammograms every two years, and provided we continue along that pathway of screening and early detection we will be able to keep her safe.
“I have read a lot of information on the BRCA gene to try and get my head around it, especially to educate my daughters and all of my family.
“Basically, we know that we've inherited this gene from our parent. The other interesting thing about that there is a company called KConFab (Kathleen Cuningham Foundation Consortium for research into Familial Breast cancer), and they are down in Sydney … and we contacted them with regards to our gene testing as well. And every time I have surgery, I send them a piece of my tumour.
“And from that they have been able to trace back our DNA and they've traced our strain back to Germany.
“The most amazing thing is I have 74 cousins and seven aunts and uncles and they're all going, ‘Oh, this obviously came from Grandma and it would have been her side of the family that had this gene and his passed it on.’
“Well, it turns out the gene came from Granddad. Yes, because he is from Germany and not grandma—she was from Ireland. So, this strain in fact came down through my grandfather to his daughters and his sons as well—I’ve had two of my uncles pass from cancer.
“It's a very prevalent gene that we've gotten, apparently even KConFab have said that it's a really aggressive strain. My son has also been tested. He is negative, thankfully. And a lot of my cousins have since tested.
“So, the girls in the family just have to do normal screening when they reached the appropriate age, because they can still get breast cancer, of course, but hopefully not the aggressive type.
“There's a program that is run at the Royal (Brisbane and) Women's Hospital for the children of women who are diagnosed with the BRCA gene early in life.
“They basically take your daughters under their wing, or your son, I guess if he's got the BRCA gene. And when they go there, they see the breast nurse, they see a professor of oncology, and breast surgery, they see psychologists, and there's about five different people in that group, and they also help screen, so they send them off for MRIs once every two years, I believe.
“They also help them with seeing the psychologist because of how it affects their lives, someone to talk to, someone at hand at all times, and Professor Obermier is the professor down there and he is just amazing, and he takes you into his little group and he looks after you. And if you have any queries at any time you can call him. He's always available and he helps these lovely women through their journey in life to ensure that they keep safe and managed.
“So, it's a journey.
“He looked after my mother as well, once she was diagnosed because unfortunately Mum came to have secondaries (secondary cancers).
“She ended up with ovarian cancer, which is very much linked with the breast cancer in the BRCA2 gene, and it was five years post mastectomy for herself when she developed this unknown cancer on her ovary, which then of course attached to her bowel and it was a slow journey of about four years, but eventually it … got the better of her. Bowel cancer. But it was breast cancer in the beginning.
“She was a strong great woman and unfortunately, she's ... she’s looking after me from up there.
“They asked me if I would be a contact for women on the Sunshine Coast, who would be going through tram flap. I don't believe they do tram flaps anymore.
“At the time, yes, I said, of course I will, and I've quite often gone and met ladies on the weekend and had coffee with them. Had a good chat to them. Explained to them the process of my surgery and how happy I am with being made back into a whole woman again. I have in fact taken them into dressing rooms to show them the results of my surgery.
“And that's probably going a bit beyond what I needed to do, but the women themselves really enjoyed it because to just see it, you get your head around it more. A brochure is great, other approaches are great, pictures that you see are great, but to actually see the results in the flesh is just a whole better experience for women.
“So, I have done that for … about the last 10 years.
“I've also been asked to be a guest speaker at Pinktober, at the Kenilworth Hotel, which is a wonderful little haven up here on the Sunshine Coast and every year they do a massive fundraiser, and they knew of my journey as I'm friends with the publican and his wife and of course I jumped at the chance.
“Five or six years ago I was due to be the speaker again, but unfortunately I was in hospital having surgery again.
“Chemo was not kind to me. I was actually allergic to it.
“So my very first treatment, it was about day three when I was completely neutropenic, so I'd lost all my white (blood) cells and it just killed everything and I did develop this massive allergic reaction to it, and I couldn't fight the infection. My whole bowel was inflamed, and they were scared that it was going to rupture, because if it had ruptured and I didn't have the ability to fight what was going to happen to my body.
“I ended up in hospital for about eight weeks. Having blood transfusions and antibiotics and all the lovely things that they needed to do. I was being cared for by three magnificent teams of people. My oncologist, the surgeon, the general surgeons and of course everyone in the hospital.
“And they took very good care of me. Got me back on my feet just in time to go and have my next line of chemotherapy, which of course we changed to an older style of chemo and my body handled that so much better and then it was a good treatment for me.
“And it was at the end of that treatment that I booked this trip to go to Hawaii.
“My own oncologist gave me permission that yes, I could go, provided I wore a mask and all the rest of it on the plane and I kept away from people. And I went that's a bit hard. I'm going to Disneyland when I get to America as well, and Las Vegas of course is on the itinerary … I said my partner doesn't know it, but I've planned our wedding.
“We’re going to get married on the beach at Waikiki. I said, ‘So, we're eloping, and nobody knows but you and I’. That, to me, was fantastic. (It was) one of those goals—to get out of this bed, get up, get better, I need to marry the man of my dreams. We've been together for 20 years. There’s nothing like a long engagement!
“And I got the most beautiful photos of us on the beach of Waikiki with me with no hair. And just my head dress with orchids and it was … It was just glorious, just glorious.
“We did a six-week stint, so we did a week in Hawaii, then we went four weeks to America and spent different places and then the last week and a half was back in Hawaii.
“It was great, just great.
“All the women in our family have always been very strong, dominant women. Growing up in the 60s and 70s, as I did with three older sisters, I became quite timid and I was quite respectful of their authority, so to speak, so if they said you can't do something, you can't do something and I would just agree to that and go. Yes, no problems. Even if I didn't want to do it, most of my working career I was always a yes-woman. Yes, of course I'll do that. Yes, I'll do that. Yes, I'm here to stay and I then decided that especially after this last.
“The cancer and diagnosis and everything about it, it really affected my life and my thought patterns and suddenly I decided that I wasn't going to be a yes-woman anymore and I have started to stick up for myself in life and I have re-prioritized.
“I have two grandchildren that are very young. They are four and two who live in Cairns and I spend a lot of time Facetiming them, but that's not getting any cuddles is it?
“I have a lot of leave up my sleeve and … I'm going to visit my grandbabies and I will get on the plane on a Friday night and I'll go and spend four days with them and then fly back home. So, they become more of my focus doing the things I want to do.
Miss Honey B. Devine
“I’ve become an outrageous woman who now does beauty pageants of all things.
“I've been hanging out with some lovely ladies who do pinup modelling for their fun times and I now have another persona called Miss Honey B. Devine.
“And I get up on stage and do my little poses and all that sort of stuff. So that is something I would never have done. I would have sat in the audience and applauded people, but now I'm just out there doing it and I'm living my life to the fullest. I'm enjoying my life. I'm happier than I have ever been an I'm positive even about my breast cancer, because if I allow it to consume my life, and be my life, I'll never move on from it, but if I can put it, yes, I've experienced it. It's made me a better person from what I have come out the other side. I'm alive!
“I'm able to pass on my journey to other women to help inspire them to ensure that they screen. Screening is most important.
“One of my wishes when I was last diagnosed, was that the women that I worked with in our clinic—and there were 15 of them—that they all go and make an appointment that day to get their breast screening done.
“And they all went, really? I said yes, if you do that for me, that will be one of the best things you could do for me and yourselves. And they did. They all went and booked at our local health service. They all went for breast screening.
“Two of them were found to have cysts that they didn't know about. One of them was a possible breast tumour, and thankfully it was benign, but it was picked up from that early screening. So again, that empowered me to empower them, and from there every two years. Have you done your appointments, girls? They all right back? Yes Kerry!
“The people I meet—especially in this new position—we have a lot of new staff that I've never met before. And, of course, within the first few weeks you'll get to know each other. You talk, you chat and again, my message is always the same: Do you girls get regular screening? I hope you do. And I say please book, please book.
“Our health service sends reminders out when there are available slots at our breast screen facilities. They'll send it out to the entire staff, saying there are appointments available for breast screening today. I think they all look at me and … wait for it Kerry … Okay have you girls booked for your Breast screen. Are you getting your appointments done today? Well, they all just go, yes, Kerry, we know the email’s out!
“I am getting that reputation of being the breast screen nut.
“Having early detection, they can treat it before it starts to filter through your body and through your lymph nodes.
“I love the cancer message. I am always dressed vibrantly, and I have five sets of scrubs even though I'm an administration officer, they are like wearing pyjamas to work. Why should nurses have all the fun?
“So, I purchased three prominent designs, all about breast cancer and that particular one (in the photo above) has the owl on it, and the pink ribbon. And there's a saying that says, ‘I give a hoot for a cure.’
“I'm a breast cancer survivor and I like to promote positive messages about breast cancer and screening. And that's why I wear these scrubs. They get people talking and they will go: ‘I love your scrubs.’
“Yep, it's about breast cancer. When was your last mammogram?”