Kerrie Simon-Lawrence Talks About Her Experience With Breast Cancer
Breast cancer was always something that happened to other people in other families. But as Kerrie Simon-Lawrence discovered, cancer seems to
turn up uninvited.
July 6, 2007. It’s a date that will stay with me. I had moved to Dubai three months earlier, fresh out of a marriage that had threatened to break me, and was determined to make the most of the fresh start my new life had offered me. I was achieving many ‘firsts’ for myself. First solo apartment, first DVD player, first set of plates I’d chosen myself.
It was about three in the afternoon I was headed out to pay my insurance on the car I had just purchased - determined to get to the AXA office before they closed - when my sister’s name flashed up on my phone. “You’ll never guess what I’m about to do,” I said in a sing-song tone.
“I have some bad news,” she said, dismissing my upbeat mood. “I’m really sorry to tell you over the phone. Mum has breast cancer.”
I suddenly became aware of how hot it was outside. I thought I might pass out. Or vomit. I fumbled with the keys for my rental car and collapsed inside.
“But how?” I asked, completely aware of how stupid the question was as soon as it escaped my lips.
Mum was 49 years old. If there was an example of how to live a healthy life, she was it – she visited the gym four mornings a week, she didn’t smoke, she roasted chicken in water, for goodness sake. It didn’t make sense. She had discovered a lump in her right breast a few days before, went straight to the doctor and after some tests, got the news she had convinced herself was impossible.
I thought I knew what it felt like to be lonely, but that night, in my new apartment, feeling so far away, I felt more alone than I had ever felt in my whole entire life. The next day, I told my boss I needed to go home, and wasn’t sure if I’d be back at all.
I landed in Sydney on my Mum’s first day of her chemotherapy treatment, a day before her 50th birthday. Here’s the thing about chemo; it strips the patient of their dignity and leaves them gasping for any sense of normality.
As my Mum fought off the nausea, I tried to come to grips with the fact that the once-tough-as-nails woman curled up in front of me was now a frightened shell of herself that I barely recognised.
Mum had always stood firm on her belief that you had to make the most of what life threw at you. When I had lost a job I loved, she told me it was the universe’s way of telling me something better would come along. And when I had turned up on her doorstep and announced that I had finally left my husband, she was the one that suggested I look to leave Australia and take on a new adventure.
But that day, laying on her bed as I tried to convince her to take a sip of tea, she wasn’t the woman I knew. “It’s not fair,” she sobbed as I quietly picked hairs off her jumper. We were surprised at how quickly the hair-loss had kicked in.
“Why is this happening to me?” she wanted to know.
“And you know what the worst bit is?” she asked. “I’m worried that now I’ve increased the chances you inheriting it.” If I’m honest, it was a thought that I’d already had.
A week later, still a bit wobbly on her feet, Mum waved me off at the airport. In fact, she was the one who’d convinced me to go back to Dubai. “You’ve earned this adventure. Go, I’m proud of you,” she said.
Back in Dubai, I made an appointment to have my breasts scanned. I was 26 years old, but was very aware that breast cancer patients in the Middle East are, on average, 10 years younger than sufferers in the Western world.
Thankfully, I got the all-clear, and have so far received the same result at every one of my six-monthly check-ups since.
Today it’s been over seven years since my sister made that phone call, and because my Mum acted so quickly and got herself to a doctor as soon as she felt that lump, she was able to get the treatment she needed. Because of that, she’s gone on to experience things she otherwise may not have; she’s met her two grandkids and travelled to South Africa to watch me get re-married two years ago. She also had the strength and health on her side to look after my Dad when he got sick a couple of years after her recovery. By all accounts, she has a long life ahead of her.
I try not to get preachy when friends tell me they’ve never had a breast scan. But it really is something I’m very passionate about. It upsets me that breast scans aren’t a regular part of women’s healthcare, particularly in the Middle East. It troubles me that so many women in this region not only develop breast cancer, but also die from it. It’s so unnecessary.
One of the people flying the breast cancer awareness flag in this region is Dr Alexandra Economacos at Dubai’s City Hospital. On my last visit, she told me of a patient who had known about a lump in her breast for a long time, but had been too embarrassed to tell her new husband. When she finally came in for an appointment, she was in the final stages of breast cancer. She was 32.
If I could tell you one thing, let it be this: learn how to check yourself in the shower at home, and please (please, please) go and see an expert.
My Mum went from breast cancer sufferer to survivor, but I’m aware that so many women aren’t afforded that result. Breast cancer is a part of our society and a part of our lives. If you’d asked me seven years ago if I’d ever dream that breast cancer would have become part of our family, I’d have told you there was no chance.
But since then, I’ve learned that cancer doesn’t discriminate. It doesn’t care who you are, where you live, what you earn or how many times you went to the gym this week. It doesn’t give a hoot that you have great life plans, and it really couldn’t be bothered with the fact that you’re totally unprepared.
Let’s make a promise this Breast Cancer Awareness month. Let’s promise to take better care of ourselves, and to tell our mothers, sisters, friends and daughters to do the same. Let’s beat breast cancer at its own game.