Rebuilding my identity after breast cancer

Lauren Pack was 36 years old with two young children and in the middle of moving house when she felt a lump while she was breastfeeding. She shares her experience of being a young woman diagnosed with triple negative early breast cancer and the impact it had on her relationships and sense of identity.

At the end of 2020, Lauren accepted a redundancy from her busy sales and marketing role in a corporate environment. With her second child due in the new year, she wanted to focus on her new home and growing family.

A few months later, she felt an unusual lump in her right breast. Initially, she put it down to breastfeeding but continued to have a strong feeling something wasn’t right. She went to her GP, who sent her for an ultrasound and then referred her to a surgeon. A biopsy confirmed Lauren had stage 3 triple negative breast cancer.

‘When the surgeon told me, I just went numb,’ she says. ‘I thought, why me? I’ve always been fit and healthy. There’s no cancer in my family. How am I going to do this?’

Searching the internet revealed very poor outcomes for triple negative breast cancer. However, her diagnosis felt less daunting once she was under the care of a multidisciplinary team and found trusted resources such as BCNA’s website.

Lauren’s treatment put her into temporary early menopause. She decided not to pursue fertility preservation because of the urgent timing.

Her year of focusing on family instead turned into a year of 16 rounds of chemotherapy, followed by a lumpectomy and 20 sessions of radiotherapy. It took a toll.

‘Being an active person, suddenly I was struggling to get up in the morning,’ Lauren says. ‘I also felt like I lost my identity. I had no hair and no periods. Everything fell away. I felt really masculine.’

The changes to her body and appearance affected her relationship with her husband, Stewart.

‘I felt like my body had shut down to focus on fighting the cancer. I felt very physically distant from Stewart,’ she says. ‘Thankfully, I also felt more emotionally connected to him and, in many ways, cancer has brought us closer.’

Despite the challenges of her diagnosis, including the loneliness of having cancer treatment during a pandemic, it didn’t diminish Lauren’s naturally optimistic attitude. ‘Ninety-nine per cent of the time I felt positive, but sometimes the one percenters would creep in. I’d let myself feel all the emotions, but I also knew it was really important to lift myself out of it,’ she says.

The support of her family and friends and excellent care of her multidisciplinary team helped her to maintain her optimism. She also sought support from a nutritionist and psychologist at the Melbourne Integrative Oncology Group. Recent test results show the best possible outcome – Lauren had a pathological complete response to treatment, which means she is now cancer-free.

Lauren says the best medicine unexpectedly came in the form of a small business she bought, called The Junior Edit, while she was in the thick of treatment.

‘The business gave me purpose outside of the home and helped take my focus away from the cancer world, which was completely out of my control,’ she says. ‘I am thankful for my diagnosis. It’s taught me to reprioritise my life and focus on the things that are really important to me. I feel empowered.’

For more information about young women with early breast cancer, check out BCNA’s My Journey.

 

Project 528: Identifying the needs of the global young breast cancer community 

BCNA is pleased to be involved in an emerging international project focusing on the experiences of young women living with breast cancer.

Our Consumer Representatives participating in the project, Naveena Nekkalapudi and Jodie Lydeker, are both young women living with breast cancer. They share their thoughts about Project 528:

‘Being diagnosed with breast cancer as a young woman (under 40) and managing the longer-term impacts of treatment can present unique challenges in the areas of family planning/fertility, career progression and relationships. Project 528 represents the estimated 528,000 young women living with breast cancer around the world each year. As Consumer Representatives for BCNA, it is an exciting time to participate in this first ever attempt to identify the commonalities and service gaps of young women, their carers and their healthcare providers across multiple countries.’

We will share more information about how young women in BCNA’s network can participate in the survey when it is conducted later this year. The outcomes of the survey are expected to be revealed in 2023 and will help to guide further discussion about how BCNA can support and advocate on behalf of young women to improve their experience and health service practices.

For more information, visit the Project 528 website.

Issue 90
Autumn 2022