Health worker shares her journey of beating breast cancer
When health workers, including nurses, tell patients to conduct breast self-examinations every month, many of them convey this from what they learned in their training as health professionals. Some of these health workers speak from personal experience and learned through their own personal journeys that early detection through self-examinations is vital for fighting this disease that affects one in every 29 women in South Africa.
One of these individuals is Anne Campbell, who was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer in 2001. Anne is currently the Deputy Director for Comprehensive Health in the West Coast District.
Anne explains that she had a benign lump removed during her matric year and was very aware of her risk since both her grandmothers had died of breast cancer. “I self-examined my breasts monthly on a specific date, although a lump was discovered in 2001 during a routine physical examination for a different procedure.” Following the discovery of the lump, she had a mammogram done that confirmed the diagnoses.
A mastectomy was done, followed by six-monthly chemotherapy sessions. Anne had these sessions scheduled on Fridays in order to use her weekends for recovery and continued working as a nurse throughout her treatment. “I will definitely recommend anyone who goes on the journey of breast cancer to continue working if possible,” says Anne. She explains that it helped her to stay positive.
Anne recalls that she hoped that her results would show it is not cancer, although she realised this was not the case before the specialist even told her: “Being a professional nurse working at Groote Schuur Hospital at the time, I walked the long passage from the new hospital section to the old outpatients department with my x-rays in a brown envelope, with the results written on the outside of the envelope. I knew what the doctor was going say. I walked back into the consulting room and just stood there staring at the doctor. I felt alone! I cried my heart out. Once all was done, I went to my car, went home and spoke to my sister and mom.”
Her support system played a big role in Anne’s recovery journey. Anne says her support system during treatment was her family, close friends and fellow church members. However, it was her son Alex, who was only 11 at that time, that she will remember as a brave boy who understood what was happening to his mother and supported her in his own way at that young age. Learning from her own experience, her advice for family and friends supporting someone who is fighting breast cancer is to lead the person spiritually and to support emotionally. “Allow the person to share their feelings openly, while respecting their confidentiality.”
She advises that if a loved one is diagnosed with cancer, you can support them by not overreacting and by staying positive, as cancer doesn’t equal death. “Do not be over-protective – that person is still an individual with her own capabilities and desires. They need to continue with their normal activities and lives.” She also encourages breast cancer patients to have fun and continue with the activities that they are used to.
For Anne, the Groote Schuur Hospital’s oncology team was simply fantastic and helped her to prepare mentally for the chemotherapy she needed. “The social worker told me to ‘imagine the chemo going through your veins right to the tips of your fingers. It will kill all those last cancer cells.’ I believed her. And it did, because I have been cancer free for 19 years!”
Anne still goes for annual check-up to a private oncology unit and believe that it is very important for every woman and man to do the monthly self-examination religiously. “You will get used to the normal feel of your breasts and will immediately know if you suspect some abnormality.” She is a living testament that regular self-checks and routine clinical examinations can save lives.
Her words of encouragement for someone who has just been diagnosed, is to be positive and stay positive. “Do not self-pity. Be open about it and share with family, friends and colleagues what you feel comfortable with and when the time is ready to talk about it.” She also advises to always take someone with when going for follow-up appointments as support is imperative on this journey.
How to do a breast self-examination:
- In a mirror, look for anything unusual on your breasts. Stand upright with one hand behind your head. Use the other hand to gently search for lumps in the opposite breast.
- Move your fingertips with in a circular motion over your breast. Start at a point on the outer part and move towards the nipple. Also examine your armpit. You can also do it in the shower or bath.
- You can examine your breasts by lying flat with one hand behind your head.
- Look for an excretion from your nipple. If you’re not pregnant or breastfeeding, consult your doctor about an excretion, which could be a sign of infection or cancer.
Warning signs to look out for:
- A puckering of the skin of the breast
- A lump in the breast or armpit
- A change in the skin around the nipple or nipple discharge
- Dimpling of the nipple or nipple retraction
- An unusual increase in the size of one breast One breast unusually lower than the other. Nipples at different levels.
- An enlargement of the glands
- An unusual swelling in the armpit
If you discover any abnormalities during you monthly self-examination, make an appointment at your nearest primary health care facility (clinic) and ask the health professional to conduct a clinical breast examination at your appointment. The health professional will also be able to give you more information on the next step, should it require further investigation.