What it is like to experience - and survive - breast cancer

Breast cancer survivor Charleen Sharp shares her very personal story as we help celebrate breast cancer awareness month this October.

“Being told you have breast cancer is a shock, to put it mildly,” says Charleen Sharp who was diagnosed with breast cancer last year.

“When I was diagnosed a year ago, the road ahead appeared thorny and endless. It took time, courage and patience, but I’m now doing well. If you’ve just started on this difficult road from diagnosis to recovery, know that you’re not alone. I hope my story gives you the courage to keep walking.”

charleen-breast-cancer-treatmentCharleen's road to recovery

Q. What was it like the day you discovered a lump in your breast?
My husband Murray was living and working in Vietnam when I found the lump in my breast. I was in bed, at home in Perth by myself; I rolled over and felt a soreness in my breast. I laid on my back and found a lump to the right of my nipple. I waited a week for my biopsy results to be delivered to my doctor. The waiting was intolerable; I cried all the time and searched Google to the point of brain overload!

Q. How did you get through the first few weeks post-diagnosis?
I was diagnosed with infiltrating ductal carcinoma, size 17mm, grade three, triple negative. I initially imagined the worst: I might not get through this! But I decided to stop crying; that wasn’t going to help me. Instead, I took the attitude that I’d got it early. Now I just wanted to get rid of the lump, get on with treatment and put this chapter of my life behind me.

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Charleen's daughter Kirsty decided to liven up her mum's chemo session with bunny ears

Q. How did you choose the best treatment plan?
I had surgery and a sentinel node biopsy was also conducted. Thankfully, it showed the cancer hadn’t spread to the lymph nodes. My oncologist recommended a course of chemotherapy followed by a course of radiation. I felt very confident in my treatment plan and lucky that I was a recipient of the advancements made to-date through breast cancer clinical trials research. To receive radiation treatment, I travelled over 100km each way with two other patients. We always enjoyed a coffee and biscuit with the friendly staff while we were there.

Q What was your support network like during this difficult time?
My daughter Kirsty, being a nurse, didn’t jump to conclusions when I told her my diagnosis. She consistently told me to wait for the results and to trust my treatment plan. Kirsty helped me shave my head, and I started wearing colourful hats and scarves. My son Daniel was living in Canada, but his words of encouragement and love were always with me. I was also lucky to have a wonderful group of girlfriends around me. Murray was extremely strong, calm and supportive. He’d been through testicular cancer and secondary in the lungs in his early 30s, so he knew how difficult the journey could be. I didn’t want him to leave his work and rush home, but I was happy he could come back for my final chemotherapy treatments.

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Charleen enjoying the company of good friends at the end of her treatment

Q. A year later how are you getting on with life?
My body had been through chemical warfare, and it took time to heal. But, as soon as I was able, I got on a plane to Kuala Lumpur to continue my travels with my husband. I wanted to make up for lost time! I recently had my 12-month follow up appointment with my oncologist. I’m excited to say I’m officially discharged from seeing him! My oncologist said hopefully he wouldn't see me again; I thanked him, and told him he was sacked!

Q. How do you feel today?
Before my hair fell out, I cut my hair short and bought an array of colourful scarves. The hospital staff were always very kind and helpful when I visited for treatments. My daughter Kirsty and I at a chemo session, where Kirsty decided to liven things up with bunny ears! The time would always fly by; we always found something to talk about. At the same time, being a nurse, Kirsty was quietly monitoring my progress.

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Charleen is now relaxing and enjoying life

At the end of my treatment, and after follow-up appointments with my specialists, it was time to get back on the plane to be with my husband, who was in Kuala Lumpur at the time. I made a hair appointment as soon as I landed! It was wonderful to be with my husband again and to enjoy the company of friends. I’m totally relaxed and enjoying life!

Be breast aware
Finding breast cancer early provides the best chance of surviving the disease. Remember you don’t need to be an expert or use a special technique to check your breasts.

6 changes to look for include:

  • a new lump or lumpiness, especially if it's only in one breast
  • a change in the size or shape of your breast
  • a change to the nipple, such as crusting, ulcer, redness or inversion
  • a nipple discharge that occurs without squeezing
  • a change in the skin of your breast such as redness or dimpling
  • an unusual pain that doesn't go away.

Most changes aren’t due to breast cancer but it’s important to see your doctor without delay if you notice any of these changes.

Here's a great video for detecting breast cancer early. Click here to watch!

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Infographic from cancer.org.au

Have you or someone you love experienced breast cancer? Join our conversation below.