Read about some older women with breast cancer...

 

Victoria, from Waiuku, had her last free two-yearly mammogram at age 68. “I assumed that the funding stopped [at 69] because my risk wasn’t as high,” she says. But at 70, Victoria noticed a discharge from her nipple. She knew she had to do something about it, and the NZBCF’s October campaign about breast cancer signs and symptoms “nudged her along”.

Her concerned GP sent her straight for a mammogram – which revealed two tumours in her right breast. Victoria was diagnosed with HER2+ breast cancer, an aggressive form of the disease which required “the works” as far as treatment goes.

She had a mastectomy, followed by chemotherapy, and is now awaiting radiation. She also will take the drug Herceptin for a year.

Like most people, she has found the chemotherapy cycles have unpleasant side-effects, and she’s lost most of her hair – “It’s just a bit of fuzz now,” she says. But overall, she’s getting through her treatment well, with the support of her husband Graham.

Victoria lives an active life, enjoying crafts and excursions with the friends she’s made through her local branch of the global friendship group, the Red Hat Society. She’s now convinced of the importance of continuing with mammograms through her seventies.

“I’m getting through this, and getting on with life,” she says. Her openness in discussing her illness reflects today’s more positive attitude to life, she believes. “Back when my father had cancer, no one talked about it. I’ve been very open with my three daughters, and they’ve been very supportive.”

 

Stephenie Whitehead, West Auckland - Stephenie and Bob Whitehead’s life has involved a great deal of moving around – so much that Stephenie never got into the mammogram habit. Last year, at 77, a large tumour in her breast burst through Stephenie’s skin.


“I knew the lump was there but I’d ignored it – I didn’t think it was cancer,” she says. “I always thought, you’re going to die of a heart attack, or old age. You think you’re past breast cancer.”

The tumour was so large, Stephenie needed drug treatment to shrink it before she could have surgery. Five months later, she had her breast and the lymph nodes where the cancer had spread, removed in a mastectomy. That was followed by had radiation, after which she started on a five-year course of the anti-hormone drug, Letrazole. “I coped with the radiation very well, and I’m doing fairly well with the Letrazole, though I sometimes have a little light-headedness,” she says.

Now 78, Stephenie keeps as fit as she can. “I walk up to 50 kilometres a week, and I haven’t really had a day off, other than the five days I was in hospital,” she says. “I’m absolutely thrilled with the treatment I’ve had, right from the start, and now I’ve got the movement back in my arm pretty much totally.”

 

Fay, 75, from Whangarei, is living proof that older women can come through breast cancer treatment well and resume their busy lives. Fay has previously had both hips replaced and has also had breast cancer before. When she went in for surgery to remove a benign breast lump last November, the doctors discovered a new, small tumour.


Fay went ahead with a double mastectomy and, to everyone’s surprise, was driving a fortnight later – just as well, since she’s very involved in her church, and she’s also on the committee of the local branch of the Blind Foundation. She and her husband, who is visually impaired, have two adult sons. “I live a very active life, and breast cancer isn’t slowing me down,” she says.

Although her own cancer wasn’t found by mammogram, Fay is a firm believer in mammograms for women in their 70s.

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