Lifelong cricket fan, Terry, has watched the McGrath Foundation grow ever since the first Pink Test in 2009, but he never thought he would need the support of a McGrath Breast Care Nurse himself. Sadly, the 76-year-old was one of the estimated 212 men diagnosed with breast cancer in Australia every year and he found out first-hand how vital their support is. Not only was Terry’s diagnosis unusual but how he found out was also uncommon. It was thanks to a prostate cancer diagnosis.
“Early in November 2021, my wife found a lump on my breast. The doctors sent me for an ultrasound and it came back as hard, fatty tissue. There was no issue,” Terry says. “Then in December, I had some tests because my PSA (prostate-specific antigen) levels were high and they came back showing a problem with the prostate. My specialist sent me for a PET scan, which showed up prostate cancer and also the malignancy of the left breast. “The breast cancer became a priority over the prostate.”
Terry had to have a mastectomy and after undergoing genetic testing, tested positive for the BRCA2 cancer gene. There were complications with the mastectomy; he developed pain and swelling in his chest which turned out to be a severe haematoma which required the wound to be cleaned and restitched. It then swelled up again and he had to have it aspirated twice, removing 380 and 260ml of fluid respectively. After he had recovered, Terry started six weeks of daily radiation on his chest and three weeks later began treatment for his prostate cancer, which included more rounds of radiation. The daily three-hour round trip to the hospital for radiation made it even harder.
“I couldn’t have chemotherapy, I had an ablation on my heart in 2021 and chemo could have caused problems,” Terry says.
“I stayed positive most of the way through, I had my moments but my attitude was, whatever had to be done, let’s get it over and done with. I’m happy, I’m good in myself now. We moved house from where we were living, to a smaller property right on the coast and we love it. Two bouts of cancer really make you think about how you want to live."
“Never in a million years did I think I would benefit from the McGrath Foundation. I knew men could get breast cancer, but the odds are like winning the lotto – except you have to be unlucky!”
“Initially, it felt too overwhelming and I was deflated, it took me a few days to absorb it all. I accepted the prostate cancer because men get it, but when I found out about the double whammy of breast cancer and that it was more invasive, that was hard. At least they got it early and I've now got a clean bill of health. “I want to give my heartfelt thanks to the McGrath Foundation, you don’t appreciate the support and the help available until you’re actually affected by it.”
McGrath Breast Care Nurse Helen's role in Terry’s recovery
McGrath Breast Care Nurse Helen was with Terry right from the start and she was a crucial part of his breast cancer treatment. “When I started treatment, it was dragging out a bit, that’s where the involvement with Helen became gold to me,” Terry says. “I could talk to somebody about it and she was good at organising everything. She told me not to worry about the swelling in my chest, and that she’d fix it and she did. She was absolutely amazing. “Without her, it would’ve been very frustrating. My wife, Glenys, would’ve probably had to do the running around and having Helen there just took the load off both of us.
“Having Helen there also made it not as lonely. She was totally supportive, and nothing was a problem for her.” Glenys also wants to emphasise that Helen also supported her, not just Terry. “After the mastectomy, I was worried about Terry’s site where it was all swollen and when we spoke to Helen she put us at ease. She got in touch with the doctor and told us what we should do to help it. She was always there for us,” Glenys says.
“Without her, it would’ve put more pressure on me. She helped take away the doubt in my mind, just knowing we had someone to talk to make the whole thing seem easier. If she weren’t there, the gremlins who sneak into your mind at night would’ve taken over. When you’re struggling and can’t get answers from anyone, she is the one who gives you those answers. She made the experience much easier.”
McGrath Breast Care Nurse Helen
Helen has been a nurse for over 30 years and a McGrath Breast Care Nurse for more than nine years. She has been at Calvary Mater Hospital in Newcastle for over five years. “I wanted to go to university, I like helping people and I like talking to people – nursing ticked all those boxes. Straight away, I knew oncology was what I wanted to do, whenever it came to my practical courses, I always chose a hospice or oncology unit, it’s something that’s always interested me. It’s also a real privilege to be let into someone’s life at that stage. You know you are making a real difference,” she says. When she saw the McGrath Breast Care Nurse position advertised, she “jumped at it.” “I knew that with my knowledge of community and support services, I could bring a lot to the role,” Helen says.
“I love my job, I love educating people and feeling that I’ve made a bit of a difference. It’s rewarding when you’re educating a patient about their treatment and you see the confusion go as understanding happens. Being able to explain complicated medical jargon to people in a way they understand is very powerful. When I first see patients, they are very vulnerable; they’re so anxious but being able to educate them about the treatment path gives them a bit of power.
“The role of a McGrath Breast Care Nurse is about providing information and support, it’s being that one point of contact that people can have from diagnosis through to treatment and beyond. You develop a rapport with people and their families, having that continuity of care puts them at ease. They know that they won’t get lost in a very complicated, convoluted health care system.”
On average, Helen sees about three men a year with breast cancer, but Terry was her first male patient for 2022. “My approach for male patients doesn’t differ. The treatment is the same, other than having mammograms,” she says. “We do have resources for men and there’s a lot of education available. Some men get really embarrassed because breast cancer is seen as ‘female disease’, but Terry wasn’t like that. He seemed to take everything in his stride. “He lived 90 minutes away from the hospital, so when he had issues with his wounds Glenys would email me photos and I’d let them know when they needed to come down so I could drain the fluid from the site, or whatever he needed.
“Terry had a difficult time, but he’s a really sensible man who took it all in his stride. For a while there, during Terry’s post-operation period, I liaised with Glenys. She’d ring me when Terry had an issue. We’re not just here to support patients, but their families as well.”