Through a rainbow lens

Mel and Riki have been together for almost two decades and married a few months ago in between COVID-19 lockdowns. They had often thought and talked about marrying but it was after Mel’s breast cancer diagnosis and treatment that they were determined to make it happen – to celebrate their love and finding joy again after a tough 18 months.

Mel was diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer in December 2016 at the age of 36. The nipple bleeding and swelling that was initially thought to be a blocked milk duct was an 8 × 10 cm DCIS and Triple Negative tumour and the prelude to many big decisions, surgery, radiation and chemotherapy.

Mel admits that having children had never been a high priority, but when faced with the possibility that treatment might remove her choice she underwent fertility treatment to preserve her eggs. ‘Doing the egg harvesting meant I could delay that decision for up to five years, and just focus on the cancer treatment.’

As a ‘rainbow couple’, Riki, who is the self-confessed worrier of the two, was concerned about how they would be treated by health professionals, knowing that many other LGBTIQ+ people had negative experiences. Mel did not have the mental space for those concerns. ‘I simply introduced Riki as my partner at every new appointment to make sure they were included. I think that confidence comes from being together for a long time, but we know not every LGBTIQ+ person has this benefit.’

What they hadn’t considered was whether their relationship within the public health system or in an emergency scenario would be recognised. Mel admits they didn’t know their rights as a de facto couple at the time. ‘We’d never been in that scenario before, and I wasn’t sure if Riki would be recognised as the primary carer or if family would be able to take over.’ Despite some resistance in accepting her relationship with Riki, Mel’s family were very respectful of Riki being the primary carer and decision maker if Mel was unable to make it herself.

A single mastectomy, chemotherapy, radiation and an emergency appendix removal were a lot to deal with in a short space of time and, like many cancer journeys, friends and family wanted to help. In an effort to keep everyone informed, a Facebook group was set up to document Mel’s progress, where they could send updates but still set boundaries about what they shared and when they shared it. Mel says it was a great way to keep information in one space and allowed them to get help when they needed it. ‘I could do a post suggesting days that it would be great for someone to cook us a meal or maybe to do the vacuuming or washing, and someone would be willing to assist. I also found writing the updates a therapeutic emotional download and helped to process what was happening but liked that I could step away from it when needed.’

Acknowledgment and equality for LGBTIQ+ communities continue to improve, albeit slowly, but discrimination and ignorance still exist. Riki remembers attending chemotherapy sessions with Mel and usually feeling comfortable enough to hold her hand but was always looking for indicators that it was safe to do so. ‘I hate the idea of people having to hide who they are, but you have to put your safety first. As LGBTIQ+ people this is something that many of us do, we are always checking to see if we’re in a safe environment to be ourselves.’

Connection with others with a shared experience can be invaluable, but many LGBTIQ+ people know their experience can differ from the wider community and often feel out of place in different settings as part of their breast cancer experience.

BCNA has recognised this and is making a genuine effort to be more inclusive by creating an online community group that can be accessed via the online network. Mel and Riki believe the initiative is another step closer to increasing awareness, connection and heathier outcomes. ‘It is great to now have a safe space for LGBTIQ+ people going through cancer, to be able to share and talk with people who understand.’

Issue 89
Spring 2021