Melissa's Story


Shortly after celebrating her 50th birthday with family and friends, Melissa booked herself in for her first mammogram when the screening van came to Geraldton.

What was hoped to be a routine health check, instead was the discovery of a 5cm lump in her left breast, and on 1 November 2022, Melissa was told she had Grade 3 triple-positive breast cancer.

“As soon as the doctor uttered the words breast cancer it became real. You always hope you never hear those words. I was angry with myself, why didn’t I do this beforehand?”

“I went through a range of emotions, disbelief was one, ‘Am I going to die?’ was also a thought.”

“How will I tell my family, and what about the kids at school? I had lots of questions. And where to from here?”

“Happy 50th!”

When Melissa left the hospital, she started making phone calls to deliver the news to her kids Charlotte (22), and Callum (20), wondering how she could soften the blow.

“They both took it reasonably well, but they had two very different reactions.”

“As a mum, my heart was breaking for them and what they were going through.”

Melissa has two aunties who had also had breast cancer so there were comparisons and connections, although Melissa didn’t carry the BRACA gene.

Melissa’s aunt Roslyn was diagnosed with breast cancer 30 years ago and noted the differences in support services available now compared to when she was diagnosed. Back then, there were no McGrath Breast Care Nurses.

“She was amazed at the level of support I was given and wished she could have had that access.”


Melissa underwent a single mastectomy in Perth just days after being diagnosed (9 November 2022) and started chemotherapy the following month at the MidWest Centre in Geraldton.

An acute, highly unusual reaction to her first round of chemotherapy meant Melissa had to be taken to Perth via the Royal Flying Doctors service for a platelet transfusion.

“It was a very different Christmas! I can tick that off my bucket list. I don’t want to do that again.”

Her second round of chemo coincided with the first day of the new school year. As school Principal, Melissa delayed her appointment so she could be at school at the beginning of the day to welcome the kids for another year, then went to the Cancer Centre to begin her treatment.

“It was really important I was there for the kids' first day at school.”

The School Community

Melissa worked right through her treatment. As principal at the local Catholic primary school, she loves her job and the kids.

“The school psychologist gave me some resources, we sent home for parents to talk to their kids for education.”

“We asked parents to talk about it with their kids. I told the children I had been sick and I needed to take medicine and my hair would fall out. But that was okay as it would make me feel better.”

“The P&F (Parents & Friends Association) got a doll called a Bravery doll which has no hair and they put it in a school staff shirt and got her glasses. We called it ‘the Mini Mrs Marquis.”

“When I started wearing a scarf, we went around with mini Mrs Marquis and spoke about what’s the same between the two of us – If mini doesn’t have hair – what does that mean?”

“The Children have just been amazing. They have just accepted this is how I look.”

“Kids don’t hold back and I’m happy to answer their questions. It’s been another support system for me.”

“Every Wednesday we have ‘Wacky Wardrobe’ – one was a pink theme and that was for breast cancer. And another Wednesday staff wore scarfs & bandanas for me. The staff have supported me. We have staff prayer every Wednesday morning and every week a small section was for me and my journey.”

McGrath Breast Care Nurse Sandy Vlatko’s role in Melissa’s treatment & recovery

“I met Sandy before my first oncology appointment in December 2022, before chemotherapy. Some of the ways she supported ‘us’, I say ‘us’ because my husband Gerard knows Sandy just as well as I do. She was there for my whole family.”

Sandy was readily available to take calls from Melissa’s husband Gerard, and provide answers to any questions he had.

“Sandy would be in all of the appointments. She would be there taking notes, or as a support person. Once the appointment was finished, she would do a debrief with us. There is a whole new language that you have to learn. There are lots of words you need to de-code and information you need to comprehend.

Sandy was our translator. She took all the jargon and broke it down into simple terms for us, so we could understand.”

“Sandy was so reassuring – she became like family as well. These nurses see you at your most vulnerable and are there to support you.”

In relation to the school community, Sandy was there too!

“She’s also shown a genuine interest in how the school has responded and worked with me in this journey. She’s been our cheerleader.”

Sandy Vlatko on Melissa

Sandy has worked as a McGrath Breast Care Nurse for around six years, first in Kalgoorlie, and now in Geraldton in WA.

Sandy first met Melissa post-surgery, and before chemotherapy in the MidWest Cancer Centre in Geraldton. Melissa was referred by a friend, as she was looking for more support.

“When I very first met her, she was very anxious and that was completely normal facing what she was facing.

She was worried about how her students were coping with her diagnosis, and caring for her family as well.”

“I was able to contact the staff at the hospital and be that ‘go-to’ person.”

“Helping someone navigate all the appointments and all the decisions they have to make and understand all of that is rewarding.”

“I spoke with Melissa about options for reconstruction, and about leaving it until later. We also discussed what’s important at the current time.”

“Breast cancer is often (most commonly) a very treatable disease, but we don’t know what curve balls will get thrown at us. We hope for the best, but we still need to make life plans. Spending time with children and loved ones. Filling their memory banks. Working out the best treatment plan for ‘you’ as an individual.”

“My own father passed away from cancer with a 4-month diagnosis, and my friend died 7-weeks after their diagnosis. I learnt from these experiences.”

“Melissa is a strong, brave woman who loves her family, and her beautiful students. Although she had a lot of anxiety and challenges, she remained positive throughout.”