Louise Cuttriss

In May this year, I went for my two-yearly routine mammogram. The Breast Screening Bus sends a text reminder and bases itself in country towns for a couple of weeks. I’ve been going since 2009. Three days later I received a letter asking for some follow up tests at the NBN Breastcreening Clinic in Newcastle. After a full day of 3D mammograms, ultrasounds and finally a biopsy, we were told that I definitely had a cancer in my right breast and that the results would take 5 days to confirm what sort and how it would be treated.

I didn’t realise that before you can be given a treatment, there are 14 specialists who sit together, look at your results and discuss your cancer. They decide on a specialised plan to treat you. With mine, which turned out to be an aggressive tumour, it was decided that I needed to have chemo first and then surgery following. Chemo started within 3 weeks of diagnosis and was to be once every third week for six treatments at The Mater Hospital. Another interesting fact was that 'chemo drugs" are a variety of different drugs they put together for specific cancers. My first three treatments were a concoction of three drugs and the last three treatments were made of one chemo drug and a "maintenance drug" called Hercepton, which I will have intravenously, once a month until September 2019.

The side effects from the chemo have been hard at times to get through, but I’m very grateful for the emotional support from my amazing family and friends. My hands have looked like I had stuck them in boiling water, my mouth had ulcers and my sinuses were affected. I had nose bleeds and severe arthritic pains in my body.  Before the mammogram, I was working full time with children with behavioural problems. I didn’t feel anything – not a lump, or sick – nothing. It came as a real shock. I have taken time off work to have my treatments and will return in 2019.

After a treatment, there is an exhaustion like you can’t believe – even to converse with people is too hard. It has a cumulative effect. At the beginning, for the first couple of times I had chemo I would recover in seven days and have a couple of weeks of feeling pretty good before the next, but then as it goes on, I have had less and less time feeling good between treatments. It gets harder to recover. The Cancer Council team in Singleton have contacted me and offered support which has been lovely. They even offered support with cleaning, taking me to treatment and financial support. I was really impressed with that. I didn’t need the services as I’m very blessed with a beautiful support network of friends and colleagues, and more than anything that’s what has got me through, especially for my mental health.  I’m married with three children and it’s affected them, too, to see me going through this. My youngest daughters friend’s parents have stepped up to support her, and my husband’s work have supported him, even giving us accommodation for two nights away which is lovely. That’s been so good, as this situation takes its toll on the whole family. This last period of chemotherapy has been the hardest to recover. At the moment, I’m five days after my last chemo treatment and I’m feeling relieved that this is the last time I will go through the motions of these side effects. The result from the chemotherapy is that at the start, my tumour measured 3.4 cm and, as of last week, it now measures 1.5cm. The surgery will be on November 8 to take the tumour out as well as lymph nodes to test. Following that, I will need 4-6 weeks of radiation.

For me, it’s important to raise awareness because I believe that prevention is better than the cure. If we can prevent cancer or have enough funding to be more knowledgeable around ‘why’ and ‘how’ - prior to it getting terminal, I believe it’s important to fund this. For me, I want people to look and say, wow, you got through this really rubbish time in your life and use that as motivation to get through their own bad period in life. Especially as I’m based in a high school – our daughter is 15 years old and when her friends found out they were quite upset. I’ve turned it around and said to them, if there’s something in life you find hard or are scared of then think: If Lou can do chemo, I can do this! Many of them have said to me, I didn’t want to do something or another, but I was thinking, if Lou can do chemo, I can do this! I wanted to give people strength and courage.