For most people, having a shower is about as commonplace as going to work or eating breakfast. But little did one Mallee woman know that when she stepped into the safe haven of her shower one night in late April 2014 – relaxed and content – that she was about to be dealt one of life’s cruellest blows. She stepped out of the shower in the confines of her own home and into a world of uncertainty and confusion. A single yellow brick road lay ahead of her – rough and unpredictable – and she had no choice but to take the journey.
52-year-old local woman Cindy McMillan was having a normal shower just like every other day when she noticed something unusual in her breast while washing herself. “I thought ‘that shouldn’t be there,’” she said. Having worked in the health industry for many years, she took immediate action. “I got out of the shower and literally rang the Swan Hill Hospital right away.” She had the mammogram on Tuesday, went back for a biopsy the following Tuesday and was dealt the painful news that she had breast cancer that Thursday.
Receiving the potentially life-threatening news of cancer is unfathomable. But to accentuate the pain and shock on the day the news was confirmed, Cindy and her husband Graeme happened to be watching The Footy Show’s Pink Lady Day in the lead up to Mother’s Day. “I said to Graeme ‘I can’t watch this,’ and he said, ‘good’ and turned it off.” The news was so raw and Cindy explains, “it was very confronting.”
Fortunately for Cindy she has four supportive adult children, a loving husband and a large family and friends base to draw support and compassion from. However, she confidently claims that her decision to delay the dreaded news until the surgeon in Melbourne had disclosed full details of the cancer was a wise one. “We got there at 4pm and she told me ‘you’re my last patient and I’II be here as long as you need.’ And so by the time I left that appointment I knew a great deal about my cancer and the journey ahead, and the outlook was positive.”
When she broke the news to her loving family that night, she was relieved to be able to relay the surgeon’s positive words without causing unnecessary concern. “The biggest message that I came away with was they would treat it with the view to cure. I’m so glad I could give everyone a positive message.”
The extensive road of life-changing treatment started almost immediately and Cindy is able to recall dates with little hesitation. She had a lumpectomy on the 22nd May and started six months of chemotherapy in June. The first four treatments were scheduled every three weeks, and then she transitioned to weekly visits; finishing on the 2nd December. She then began six weeks of radiotherapy. Her cancer was a triple negative cancer; an aggressive form of the disease. “It was a long haul,” explains Cindy.
At the end of February 2015 Cindy finished her radiotherapy and returned to work at the beginning of May; one year after that life-changing shower. However, the journey did not conclude there. There are all kinds of side effects that have continued to burden her long after the cancer has departed. “I feel terribly aged by the whole process,” Cindy says. “All of a sudden I’ve got arthritis. I had this goal that I wanted to walk the golf course and play 18 holes, but now I’m having trouble holding on to a golf stick.”
Although it is difficult to determine whether it was the cancer that has caused the onset of her arthritis, the chemotherapy itself has certainly brought about many unwelcome physical changes. “I just could not believe how quickly you lose your physical condition,” expresses Cindy. She was shocked by this quick deterioration and at times found it a challenge to regain her physical health in the small rural town of Sea Lake where facilities are more limited. “When I was having the radiotherapy, they had a breast cancer exercise group and I just got the giggles ones day looking at what they were doing compared to what I had been doing before cancer.”
Accepting her post-treatment body is something Cindy says is difficult. Her hair is still quite thin, and her eyelashes and eyebrows are yet to grow back. Although these side-effects are only minor adjustments and trivial setbacks in comparison to the alternative, they still serve as a painful reminder of what may have been. Cindy says, “there are just some adjustments you have to make, but sometimes I look in the mirror and think, ‘who is that?’ But I’m starting to love the new me. A bit battle-scarred, but better I think.”
However, despite being one of the most difficult things Cindy has ever had to face, Cindy has remained optimistic. And as a result, the challenging journey of breast cancer has enriched her life in many other ways.
Before she found out she had cancer Cindy says, “I was not looking after my physical, mental or emotional health. I was not in a good place.” She explains that she was working long hours, had a lot of personal and work related stress, was not eating or exercising well at the time and felt she was consuming too much alcohol. But the cancer put things in perspective. “Trying to eat healthy now is not about losing weight; it’s just about being better and feeling better.”
While physical health is important, and something Cindy plans to invest her time in, her social and emotional health was also highlighted during her time with breast cancer. “One of the things I really think about is that beforehand, I didn’t nurture important relationships the way I should have. I didn’t have my priorities right.” Cindy is confident that the unwavering support from her friends and the local community gave her the strength she needed to remain buoyant during her ordeal.
“I had a small group of friends who were just life-savers. I went to Melbourne to have my tests and the girls all got together and they cleaned my house, which was no easy feat as it was a bit of a mess,” says Cindy. She is forever grateful for their continuous support along the way. “They were constantly popping in to check on me, dropping in a home cooked meal or other goodies and just making sure I was okay.” Cindy’s neighbour was no exception; lighting her fire in preparation for her arrival home. “The kindness of people; of the whole community. It’s mind boggling. It was really humbling knowing that they were all barracking for you and caring about you.”
Cindy certainly had a whole team of supporters in her corner and they ventured from a lot further than her friendship group alone. She fondly recalls the moment that local Catholic School Principal Kate Nunn rang her and said, “now Cindy, we just to make sure you would be happy for us to include you in our notices and our prayers at church? It was incredible.”
In addition, Cindy vows that her inspiration and motivation for life came in the form of a book, but not the first time she read it. Before she was diagnosed with cancer she picked up the book ‘How to do everything and be happy’ at an airport. “I read it and laughed my way through it. I thought ‘this is really good’ and put it aside because I thought ‘I’m never going to be able to do this.’” However, Cindy revisited this book after breast cancer with a whole new outlook and a better appreciation of life.
“It had simple things about doing a list of what you want, but when I read it the first time I had no idea what I wanted.” says Cindy. She now has a list on her fridge – a ‘do it now’ list and ‘what you want list’ – and her husband Graeme intends to add his own. While both sitting down one day Cindy got the ball rolling with her wish to do a trip from Gippsland up into the mountains. And for the first time in their marriage, and much to Cindy’s surprise, Graeme expressed his own wish to fly over the Kimberley’s and see the Horizontal Falls. “He would never have thought it was a possibility before,” says Cindy. But then, they had never expressed these life desires before breast cancer. She says that the cancer has definitely brought her and her husband closer together. “We have started to talk about things more, and we definitely care for each other more. Graeme really is my rock.”
Reflecting on life before cancer, Cindy now sees the importance of “doing the nice stuff” such as visiting those you see infrequently or helping friends, rather than putting herself under pressure with work and minor life setbacks. When you are faced with a life-threatening illness, those are the things that matter most.
As a Finance Officer at a hospital that has undergone significant change over the past decade, Cindy has also learnt to be more disciplined in her approach to work. “I have always been a Last Minute Lucy, but I now pace myself a bit better and think of the benefits of doing things rather than what I have to do,” says Cindy.
Although the tedious part of the cancer journey has been conquered, it is not over yet. Cindy is still required to see the surgeon once a year and attend a check up every three months with the Oncologist in Bendigo. But Cindy’s positive outlook on life shines through, and light-heartedly she jokes, “she examines my breasts for me, so at least I don’t have to worry about that.”
Scarily, breast cancer is the most common cancer affecting women and as many as one in eight women will experience it during their lifetime. However, with a high survival rate with early detection, it is vital that women take advantage of the free screening mammogram every two years.
At 52 years of age – before she was diagnosed – Cindy had never had a breast screen either. At the time she was diagnosed, her mum and dad were 86 and 90 years old and there was no cancer in either of their families. So breast cancer was far from her busy mind. Naively she says, “I kept thinking I must go (for a mammogram), I must go. I assumed when my parents are that old, I’d be here forever. I still can’t guarantee I would have gotten to that breast screen bus.”
As Breast Cancer Awareness Month comes to a close, we at 3585livestayplay are excited to be holding a ‘Girls’ night Out’ at Barrells Cocktail Bar tonight to raise money for breast cancer. If you are keen for a fun-filled night out with a few drinks, door prizes, nibbles, and the chance to donate money that will help people such as Cindy and her family in the future, then come and join us tonight at 7.30pm. $15 entry and a free glass of pink bubbles on arrival.
If you can’t make the night you can also donate to our fundraising page https://secure.cancercouncilfundraising.org.au/registrant/FundraisingPage.aspx?Referrer=%26Referrer%3dhttps%253a%252f%252fwww.girlsnightin.com.au%252f%253f_ga%253d1.88179611.1881932197.1476992997&RegistrationID=1025856#&panel1-1