Karin Ferguson: You've got to keep your sense of humour

A dental appointment was an unlikely start to my journey with, and recovery from breast cancer. As I sat waiting for my appointment,  I flipped through a number of brochures, coming across a BreastScreen brochure, which explained the free service provided for women over the age of 40yrs. . However it was not until one year later, while walking through Myers (department store), the familiar BreastScreen sign caught my eye, so I stopped, approached the BCI  Sunflower Clinic reception and was able to book in for a mammogram the following week.


A few weeks later, I received a letter asking me to come in for a repeat mammogram.  Thinking it was nothing more than a routine visit – as a bigger-breasted woman, I thought maybe pat of the breast had been missed?


The visit however, turned into three-hours at Westmead Breast Cancer Institute as I underwent further workup imaging with another mammogram, ultrasound and a biopsy. “Sitting in the waiting area, I began to suspect something was wrong.  Surely an all clear would be straight forward and this was taking a very long time.” Karin said.


I was sitting there thinking about my planned dinner with my sister that evening, when I  was called into a consult and given the news I  had a 1 centimetre lump as well as an enlarged lymph node.   Calling and telling my sister the news of my diagnosis, the casual dinner hurriedly became a family gathering dinner so I could tell everyone in one go. It was definitely not the happiest dinner, particularly as 12 months earlier our mother had passed away from cancer.


My family’s reaction was varied, most of my family were concerned and supportive, however one family member completely closed down and wasn’t able to interact with me.


Over the next two years, I underwent intensive treatment including surgery, radiotherapy, chemotherapy and Herceptin infusions to treat the cancer.   During the first year, I felt constantly tired and awful at times due to the effects of many anaesthetics and treatment.


I found keeping on top of treatments, appointments and results was made much easier by recording them in a single book – a diary and information kit called the My Journey Kit which is provided by the Breast Cancer Network Australia.


When you go through treatment you tend to feel overloaded with new information and you don’t always take in what people are saying because you can be tired from the treatment.


I got into the habit of typing out a list of questions, sometimes 15 or more and then at the end of the day, following the appointment, I would type up the answers so I could go back over them later.


This methodical approach, in part due to the loss of my mother, developed as a result of attending her appointments.  Also, as a nurse, I had a mindset of dealing with reality without letting emotions take over.


Alongside the record keeping and nurse mentality, I tried to keep life as normal as possible and found it best to be open with colleagues and friends about having breast cancer and undergoing treatment.


I also said that I didn’t want to let cancer take-over my life and that I wanted to talk about normal things but being open about the cancer meant that people were understanding if I couldn’t go out or if I had to take leave or finish work early for treatment.


My flair for management was a great benefit throughout the treatment.  I would schedule out treatments so that leave could be built up around the times when I knew I would be sick.


I mostly stayed home, but I rented a holiday house on the coast with some friends so I could spend time with them. In the morning I’d be in the bathroom dressing radiation burns and then we’d go out and enjoy a coffee and just relax.  It wasn’t important for them to know I needed to do that.


I found a great deal of support during my treatment and recovery due to the resources made available by Westmead BCI and the Cancer Council.


With support groups you have to pick what works for you as some support group meetings left me feeling worse – you have to know what support you need and build up the resources around it.


The strong network of friends and not letting cancer dominate conversation meant that I was able to keep an optimistic outlook and also keep up strength throughout treatment. Being able to finish work early the day of treatment, go home lie on the lounge and eat takeaway built up the strength I needed to get through.


I laugh when I think about forgetting to tell one colleague about my cancer when I cut my long hair knowing that it would fall out due to chemotherapy.  “I thought I had told him, but when he saw my short haircut he commented that that the new style looked nice. I pulled out a clump of the hair and said, ‘yeah but not for long!”.  My colleague (a nurse) was horrified!  Poor thing.


I am travelling OK these days, still working as methodical as ever.  However, if I learned anything throughout this ordeal it was – you’ve got to keep your sense of humour.