Tuckshop mum inspires with fight for survival
SUE Whittaker's greatest fear, on finding out she had cancerous tumours in her breast, was not for herself but for her children.
A single parent, Sue would leave behind two teenage daughters if she lost the fight.
But due to swift and "intense" medical intervention, and a dash of luck, Sue says it's only "on and up" from here.
The journey that led her to finally achieve the happy "remission" prognosis was gruelling, she said.
It had begun after a chance viewing on television.
"I'd seen on TV that Olivia Newton-John had been re-diagnosed," she said.
"So that led me to do a self-check, and I found a pea-sized lump near my nipple."
Sue's doctor then examined her breasts and referred her for a mammogram and ultrasound, and these identified tumours totalling more than 10sq cm in her right breast.
Sue was shocked.
"It was stage three, aggressive breast cancer that had spread to my lymph nodes," she said.
"So I think I was very lucky to have found it at the time."
She recalled receiving the paperwork from the biopsies and reading through it over the phone with her mother, and her sister.
"I saw the GP and I said, 'it's not good is it?' and he said, 'no, it's not good'.
"I was just devastated. The hardest thing for me was how to tell my girls, because they were only 13 and 14 at the time.
"I could die. And being the full-time carer of my girls, what would happen to them? It was so aggressive."
Sue's daughters took the news bravely, when she told them on the night of her diagnosis.
"I sat them down, and I talked to them about the fact that I'd just been diagnosed with breast cancer, and that I had a big fight on my hands," Sue said.
Tahlia had assumed a carer role: "I've got to look after Mum, I've got to look after my little sister", was the attitude she conveyed, Sue said.
"But it was heartbreaking for me.
"I tried not to get too upset in front of them.
"I obviously got upset at night time, and tried to just keep on going as much as I could."
Sue is now in good health after intensive chemotherapy and radiation treatment has removed the detectable signs of cancer, although it could still be in her body.
"It was intense," she said.
"They didn't muck around … I got in to have surgery within three weeks of being diagnosed, and straight into treatment as soon as I was well enough, and healed."
A cook at Good Shepherd Lutheran College's tuckshop, Sue worked through her chemotherapy, and much of the radiation treatment, except for the final few weeks as her chest was too severely burnt.
"It was distraction from the fact that I was fighting this disease … even though I had a constant reminder," she said.
Radiation therapy burned her body, and forced her to take some time off, she admitted.
"Working in a kitchen with burns on your chest, it's not the most comfortable thing to do," she said.
"Having time off was nice.
"But what went through my head the whole time, was, 'I've got to have everything in place - my will, my super', in case I didn't get through it.
"I'd had friends who'd had breast cancer, but not to that stage."
Two mastectomies, six months of chemotherapy, five weeks of radiation and doctors consider Sue's body to be in remission.
The joy and relief in her voice was palpable as she said she felt "incredible".
"After 18 months of not having treatment, everything seems to be going well," she said.
"I'm still very, very sceptical, but my trips to the oncologist are now six-monthly, which is great.
"When I recently had my check-ups in July … they were really happy with my progress.
"So it's just onwards and upwards, and that's partly why I created the app."
Sue learned a lot through her experience about the Sunshine Coast's oncology services and the supports available for people fighting the disease.
"I wanted to help other patients, you know?," Sue said.
"I found navigating my way through all the different information very hard, because there's a lot of it and people tell you different things.
"Halfway through my treatment I changed to Noosa. I found out I could have it at Noosa.
"That led me to think, well if I'm stumbling upon information, and I have to go and find more information by asking more questions, why isn't this stuff more readily available?"
She started researching and put together a step-by-step guide to help other newly diagnosed breast cancer patients on the Sunshine Coast.
Her not-for-profit app, Just Diagnosed, launched in July, and helps connect breast cancer patients with supports and services including the Cindy Mackenzie Breast Cancer Program.
Based at Buderim Private Hospital, the program helps people diagnosed with breast cancer, including eligible public hospital patients, with financial support.
Sue said that even though she had been a public patient at Sunshine Coast University Hospital, the costs of undergoing treatment, including lost income when she took time off work to recover from the first mastectomy, added up.
"I spoke to Lisa from Cindy Mackenzie foundation, and they helped me out with a really massive phone bill (I had) at the time," she said.
"And they so kindly donated a bunch of vouchers for my girls, that really helped at a time that I needed it.
"They're paramount in helping make peoples' journey that much easier."
Sue had been overwhelmingly afraid at the beginning of her journey, she said.
"I was absolutely scared that I would not make it," she said.
"That I would not get through my treatment, that I would not get through any of it … that was my biggest fear, not being here for my girls."
As she came to understand some of the science of what was happening and meet people who had helped many patients through successful treatment, her terror subsided and she focused all her energy on confronting the challenges, and on healing, she said.
"I tackle everything now," she said. "I take it head-on, and I'm actually probably more resilient than I've ever been in my life."
October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and Pinktober is the Sunshine Coast's festival of awareness and fundraising for the Buderim Private Hospital Cindy Mackenzie Breast Cancer Program.
Coast residents can join in at events, or find out more and donate at www.sunshinecoasthospital.com.au/cindy