Canberra working mother Nicole received a short email that was to change her life forever,during a holiday to Los Angeles with her family.
Following an urgent return flight, Nicole made the brave decision to undertake a double mastectomy.
“The Cancer Council ACT Wig Service made me feel human again. I urge everyone to seriously consider giving to this wonderful service for cancer sufferers,” said Nicole.
For Canberra working mother Nicole, a holiday trip to Los Angeles with her two young daughters was suddenly “turned on its head” because of a short, devastating email that was to change her life forever.
The message was clear. Medical scans and tests taken literally hours before she flew out of Canberra confirmed what she had dreaded for years - she had breast cancer.
“Those few words in the email will be etched into my mind forevermore,” said Nicole.
The message from her doctor said what Nicole had hoped never to hear; “Unfortunately, it is a cancer and I would like to operate as soon as possible – before Christmas.”
Nicole recalls she was initially stunned. “I turned to my daughters and told them I had cancer. We needed to go home - I knew I had to get home, right then.”
She praises the onboard Qantas cabin crew who took over her urgent travel needs. “By the time we got to the top of the exit ramp, Qantas had booked us all a flight home on the same plane we arrived in, and they arranged a hotel room for us to rest before the return flight,” Nicole recalls.
Remembering the events leading up to the fateful email message, Nicole describes the last minute scramble to pack and prepare for the holiday flight.
“My colleagues at work had been amazed at my flat-out preparations and convinced me to get my health checked out before I left. ‘Work should not be the only focus and one should not put a price on their health’, they insisted.”
In the rush and work pressure, Nicole had missed spending the previous two holidays with her daughters. “We were finally boarding our fight to America and I was determined to make up for this.”
But lurking at the back of Nicole’s mind was feeling of dread. She carried a large lump in one of her breasts and knew she would receive the biopsy results on her arrival in the USA. Nicole remembers visiting the passenger cabin bathroom, looking in the mirror and thinking, “I am cancer free for another four hours, so I am going to enjoy this thought.”
A fortnight before their departure, Nicole had undergone an MRI scan for the lump that had been bothering her for some time.
“It had first bothered me three years ago but every six months I had a MRI scan and it was normal.
“My doctor insisted on seeing me after the last MRI,” Nicole said.
The scan had come back normal again but, to be sure, medical staff recommended having a mammogram and ultrasound.
“I was lucky to get that appointment the day before we flew off on our holiday,” says Nicole.
During the ultrasound, two radiographers studied Nicole’s lump. Then the radiologist reported noticing a ‘very slight shadow’ on the mammogram but it didn’t appear to be anything.
“They really didn’t think there was anything to worry about,” she says.
Nicole remembers showing the radiologist how large her lump was, and saying how much it was bothering her. “It hurt and I was continuously conscious of it,” Nicole said.
This prompted the specialist to give Nicole the option to biopsy the lump. They told Nicole it was fine if she wanted to think about this, but there was the opportunity to do the biopsy immediately.
Fast forward to the fateful email.
“After the initial news, my daughters were visibly distressed. I had no emotion, I was just focusing on going home. I was actually relieved that the lump ‘thing’ that had been bothering me, nagging at me for the past few months and maybe years, finally had a name… cancer,” Nicole said.
“Truthfully, I think I had suspected the cancer was there all along. Now I knew it was definitely there…eating at me.”
The trip back to Canberra was uneventful but landing at the terminal proved to be chaotic.
“My husband was beside himself. The in-laws were there, my sister was en route and my parents were expected to arrive in a few days. The following days were a blur.”
Nicole says there were no hard decisions to make. She knew what she wanted to do – a double mastectomy, followed by chemo and radiation if necessary.
“I was completely comfortable about this. I wanted the cancer out and I wanted it out now.”
While Nicole’s husband and sister needed more convincing, she knew it was her only option to rid her body of the cancer.
“The only thing that made me cry in the week leading up to the surgery was the moment my girls picked up the guitar and sang to me – Ed Sheeran’s ‘Perfect’.
The surgery uncovered a 7cm stage 2b ductal invasive carcinoma. “It was much larger than a typical breast cancer diagnosis… and it had been there a few years,” Nicole explained.
She acknowledged it bothered her. “I kept going to see about it. But none of the tests showed it. Not an MRI, not a mammogram not an ultrasound.”
Looking back, Nicole has a long list of special people to thank for getting her to where she is today and her fight is not over yet.
“Had the radiologist not spoken to me and taken the biopsy I would still have that nagging feeling. For that I am thankful!
“I am thankful also to my colleagues at work for urging me to act and for medical staff recommending the biopsy though the MRI was clear; that saved my life!”
The sympathetic and professional Qantas crew who knew immediately what was needed to get Nicole and her girls back to Canberra as soon as possible.
On reflection, Nicole sees cancer as remarkable. “My outlook on life shifted within seconds… what is really important and what is not.” Her advice? “Don’t sweat the small stuff; life can’t wait and it is up to each of us to go out and find it.”
Nicole’s heartfelt message to all women is to recognise those moments when something “isn’t right” in their bodies. “Don’t put off your health because it can impact not just your life, but those that surround you with their love.”
“After all, the only other time I cried was the day it was suggested to me that I should shave my head before chemo treatment started. While I wasn’t particularly attached to my hair, the thought of not having any was traumatic,” she said.
With that in mind, Nicole sought the expertise of the Cancer Council ACT Wig Service team to assist her to choose a wig to get her through her upcoming chemotherapy treatment. The day before she shaved her head, Nicole found a wig that suited her personality and felt it would give her some comfort on the days she needed to feel as normal as possible.
“The Cancer Council ACT Wig Service made me feel human again. I urge everyone to seriously consider giving to this wonderful service for cancer suffers,” said Nicole.