Cancer survivor seeks to help others in battle

By DERMOTT CHATWIN

The warm rays of the sun stream down from the bright-blue morning sky. The sound of the children playing in the backyard fills the spring air. The brunette puts her cup of coffee down as she takes a seat at the dining table of her modern three-bedroom family home. Music softly plays in the background. She comforts her youngest son as he sits on her lap and gently tugs at her plain black t-shirt. Vanessa Murphy’s maternal instincts kick in as she reaches for the tissues to wipe her ill child’s nose.

Vanessa’s grey eyes begin to well up and a tear begins to trickle down her cheek as she recalls Friday, February 2, 2018, the day her life changed forever. “I was still breastfeeding Jack at the time and I just noticed a bit of a change in my breast, I had a dimple,” she says. After a quick google search, the Bli Bli mother of two booked a doctor’s appointment for later that morning just to be safe. Vanessa remembers crying in the car the whole way home after she had hastily undergone an ultrasound at the request of her doctor. “I just remember some of the looks that the sonographer was giving me, she found a darkness in my armpit and I kind of just knew then that it was cancer,” she says. She returned to the doctors that afternoon, where her GP told her that all the characteristics were pointing towards cancer. It was in that moment that she says she knew her life would never be the same. “It was Jack and James, my kids … you instantly think it’s a death sentence,” she says. “That’s your first initial thought and I don’t think anything else went through my head for a while other than I don’t want to leave my husband, my family and my kids. “That’s not fair.”

Two biopsies, two surgeries, three hospital stays, 16 rounds of chemotherapy, 30 rounds of radiation treatment, menopause, a voluntary total hysterectomy and bone infusions. No woman should ever have to experience so many painful ordeals in their entire lifetime, let alone at just 34 years of age. Unfortunately, these are just some of the sufferings Vanessa has had to endure since being diagnosed with breast cancer 18 months ago. Vanessa finished her treatment in November last year and has since grown her hair and eyelashes back and regained the colour in her face. However, she cautions that looks can be deceiving as behind closed doors the fear and anxiety of the cancer still haunts her. “This thing is like a gun to the back of your head for the rest of your life, just waiting for the trigger to be pulled and it never goes … a big smiley face doesn’t always mean that everything is fine,” she says.

With the number of women diagnosed with breast cancer in Australia continually rising each year, it is safe to say that Vanessa is not alone. According to the Breast Cancer Network Australia website, approximately 19,371 women will be diagnosed in 2019 up from 18,087 last year. That’s an average of 53 Australian women being diagnosed every day.

The BCNA also commissioned a study to highlight the significant issue of the financial impact of breast cancer in Australia. The results show that a woman will pay around $5000 in out-of-pocket costs in the first five years from diagnosis. Having insufficient or no wage replacement options to cover the loss of work affects 38 per cent of Australian women receiving breast care treatment. The total number of household hours worked dropped by a staggering 50 per cent in the first year after a breast cancer diagnosis. These findings paint an alarming picture of the financial strain breast cancer has on Australian women and their families. In order to fix this increasingly worrying social issue, the BCNA report listed 14 recommendations including the introduction of free parking at hospitals for people with cancer.

Vanessa and her family know this financial strain all too well after being told she couldn’t work at all while undergoing treatment as the risk of catching infections in her role as a childcare worker was high. “We lost $40,000 straight away, maybe even more,” she says. “I didn’t have any income protection insurance … I’d taken it off when I went on maternity leave with James and then I’d forgot to put it back on.” Fortunately, her husband Ben had received a promotion just five days before Vanessa was diagnosed, which helped ease some of the financial pressure on their young family. Another form of relief was provided by the local Cindy Mackenzie Breast Cancer Program, who paid $500 off their rates bill when they were doing it tough.

Vanessa feels the lack of funding for organisations providing financial support is a huge problem. She believes the financial burden on families could be eased if the government addressed the glaring issue. “It’s a really big gap that’s missing in society … I do really think that more funding should be given to organisations like the Cindy Mackenzie Breast Cancer Foundation because even if it’s just $100, or $200, or $500 it’s such a huge stress reliever,” she says.

Vanessa is eager to return the generosity by hosting a fundraising event for the Program’s annual ‘Pinktober’ campaign, run during Breast Cancer Awareness Month, in the hope of paying it forward. The fundraising event information can be found on her ‘At Thirty Three it happened to me’ Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/atthirtythreeithappenedtome/.

Cindy Mackenzie Breast Cancer Program co-ordinator Lisa Daldy says the program is the only organisation in Queensland that offers financial support. “We offer support in the year of their treatment and also the first year post-treatment,” she says.

Cindy Mackenzie Cancer Program client support officer Jo Ricardi wishes they could do more to help Sunshine Coast families in need. “The financial support we provide is just a drop in the ocean compared to the out of pocket expenses that they have,” she says.

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