“EVERYTHING stopped for a year,” says Natalie Mathews (44) about undergoing breast cancer treatment in 2015.
This year, having finished chemotherapy, surgery and radiation, her focus is on surviving and rebuilding her life.
Part of that recovery she hopes will come from starting a social group for women in similar circumstances who have also survived breast cancer.
The Northern Breast Cancer Survivorship Support Group will base itself at Shenton House, where Genesis Cancer Care WA has given it free access to its boardroom.
Mrs Mathews was diagnosed with a rare form of breast cancer, triple negative ductal carcinoma, on February 11, 2015.
“It had already started spreading,” she said.
“I came straight to an oncologist, which was here at Genesis; I spent the better part of last year here.”
The Kingsley resident had chemotherapy first to kill off most of the cancer prior to having surgery.
“We did that for another six months – it was a long chemo,” she said.
“Triple negative responds well to chemo (and) I got a complete pathological response.
“I had a double mastectomy.
“I was away from (Genesis) for a few weeks but then I had to come back for radiation.
“By November last year everything was finished and everyone said ‘goodbye’ and I was in a black hole.
“There was a lot to think about; how to live with that thought and how to live with those feelings and how to live with the physical toll.
“I needed to find some groups; I needed to see who I could mix with who was in the same mindset.”
Mrs Mathews said while the Cancer Council WA offered “amazing facilities” and there were “amazing McGrath (Foundation) nurses” during treatment, the support after treatment was missing.
“There are some really lovely and wonderful groups out there for people who are getting treatment, but there wasn’t a lot of survivorship,” she said.
Mrs Mathews said she hoped the group could start by having coffee catch-ups within the next month or so.
“My mission for the group was just to assist people with learning about health issues that occur after treatment,” she said.
“We are survivors but we have to go back to work with that.”
The mother-of-two said she hoped the group could talk about issues that came up during and after treatment, including how to get back into “normal life”.
“It’s a hard thing to get your head around,” she said.
“I’ve got two boys, five and seven; I’m a fulltime secondary school teacher.
“Everything stopped for a year; how do I fit back into the daily routine?
“A lot of people are finding it hard to explain to employers or their husbands or their children that ‘I get aches and pains every day’.
“There are lots of different things that you live with but you are just happy you are alive. It’s the new normal.
“Just because you look good doesn’t mean you feel good.”
The Wanneroo Secondary College teacher said one of the side effects of radiation was “brain fog” so it was “hard work to get things out quicker”.
“I forget things; I’m not that person that I was a year and a half ago,” she said.
Mrs Mathews said she hoped the cancer survivors could also discuss ways to talk to partners, including her husband.
“He is just watching me for symptoms all the time,” she said.
“The fear in (partners) is sometimes a lot higher than in us.”
With three other women already keen to be part of the group, Mrs Mathews wanted the group to provide “ongoing care for survivorship” and a place where people could talk about follow-up care.
“We want somewhere we can get together and an environment where we feel safe,” she said.
“Everyone’s cancer journey is different (but) we all have something in common.
“It could include therapies and a walking group, and other activities that allowed women to be proactive about their survivorship.”
“The group could talk about whether or not to reconstruct breasts, how to talk to your children about cancer (and) it would be nice if we could create some resources here.”
Genesis Cancer Care WA has offered a free meeting space for the group, which means members would be near the nurses and professional help as well.
The facility at Shenton House, which opened in 2013, treats about 150 breast cancer patients a year.
To join the Northern Breast Cancer Survivorship Support Group, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Doctor’s vigilance credited for saving life
Natalie Mathews credits her doctor’s vigilance with detecting the rare cancer that had already spread.
Mrs Mathews said she had dense breasts and was unaware of the tumour so it was her “GP who saved my life in a regular pap smear and breast examination”.
“I had no defined lump,” she said.
“It was by the rib cage; it had already opened and spread.
“She sent me off for a mammogram. Everything happened extremely quickly.”
Mrs Mathews said about 10 to 20 per cent of breast cancer patients had the triple negative form.
That meant they did not have any of the three receptors commonly found on breast cancer cells – the oestrogen, progesterone and human epidermal growth factor receptor two (HER2).
“It’s not spurred on by any of the hormones,” she said.
“I didn’t find anyone who had triple negative cancer to talk to.”
Mrs Mathews said statistically triple negative breast cancer had a higher rate of recurrence in the first three years.