Michelle Sebastian is a 29-year-old engineer, living and working in Johannesburg. She was officially diagnosed with breast cancer while on honeymoon in the Garden Route at the age of 26. We asked Michelle a few questions about her experience – read on for her story.
What Stage Were You Diagnosed With?
How Much Did You Know About Breast Cancer When You Were Diagnosed?
Admittedly, I didn’t know much about breast cancer other than the self-checks that can be done. My aunt had breast cancer when I was much younger. Unfortunately, her story ended differently and that was my only real reference point before I was diagnosed.
How Was The Cancer Initially Detected?
I was in Italy, in my final weeks of the academic section of my MBA. I noticed an indentation on my left breast, almost as if someone had left their thumbprint on my breast and the skin would not bounce back into place. I changed my bra for a week, thinking it might be the underwire but nothing changed. I tried the self-check for any lumps and didn’t feel anything noticeable.
How Did You Feel When You First Received The News?
To be honest, I don’t think it sunk in at first. Everything from that point on happened very quickly. We cut our honeymoon trip short, and were immediately welcomed into my brother and sister-in-law’s home in Cape Town. They had arranged for appointments with the best oncologist (Dr Pienaar), breast surgeon (Professor Apffelstaedt), fertility specialist (Dr Sulaiman Heylen) and reconstructive surgeon (Professor Graewe) in town. It was a whirlwind of information overload – from preservation of our embryos, right down to how to make your home chemo-friendly.
How Did You And Your Family Deal With The News?
It was a lot to take in at first. My parents took it the hardest, I think. They couldn’t even really bring themselves to talk about it for months. I think the experience they had going through treatment with my aunt and knowing that their child has the same disease really was a tough journey to go through and accept.
My in-loves (in-laws), particularly my brother and sister-in-law who are both medical practitioners themselves, were in action mode from the word go. It really alleviated the pressure of figuring out which medical team to turn to in the beginning. It wasn’t easy but my family were so supportive and really came together to make things work, better and more than bearable during the time.
Did You Have A Support Network?
I had the best support system ever – my family were stars. Everyone played their part and really ensured that this process was as smooth as it possibly could be. My parents were always there to worry and take care of me physically, and my brothers were there supporting and rooting for me. My aunts, uncles and cousins actually each knitted woollen squares which we put together into a prayer blanket. My in-loves were brilliant at planning and helping me execute the plan. They also opened their home so that I could literally walk to the oncology centre (I only walked once, though). My husband held the fort and was my emotional pillar during what can only be described as a crazy time in our lives. Like my current oncologist Dr Robbie de Meulenare says: ‘When cancer hits, all else takes a step back. Focus on the next steps in bite-sized portions only.’
Tell Us About Your Treatment Process.
Once diagnosed, I did the BRCA 1 & 2 gene tests as well as the full gene test to identify if the cancer was genetic. Before chemo started, I was put on fertility treatment and quickly froze our embryos.
I had six months of chemotherapy (three months Red Devil and three months Paclitaxel), after which I had a single mastectomy with immediate reconstruction. Then I had radiation. At this point, the worst was over and I even completed an internship which was the last part of the MBA and I could graduate with my class. After that I was put on hormonal therapy (Zoladex and Tamoxifen) – basically I take a pill a day and receive an injection every three months. Because my tumour was hormone-receptive, the hormonal therapy tries to reduce the oestrogen levels in my system.
Were There Any Programmes Or Services Offered To You That Helped With The Treatment Process?
‘Look good, Feel Good’ was fun and was a great way to be introduced to other breast-cancer patients. I went to one CanSurvive support group – this was great, especially for the care-givers, as it gives all involved a platform to share and identify with others’ experiences. I basically Googled everything and verified with my doctors, and on my last day of radiation I wrote a blog post as a quick directory of what helped me during treatment – Itsnotallpink.weebly.com.
Did You Face Any Obstacles During Your Treatment Process? What Were They? And How Did You Overcome These Obstacles?
What a lot of people focus on is the physical aspects of breast cancer and treatment during the process. I found it so important to focus only on what was going to happen next and not over thinking about the entire future.
Treatment affects you physically and emotionally and it is imperative that you go into treatment knowing it’s going to be tough, but with each wave you’re being taken closer to the shore. And be real with yourself. If you’re having a tough day, embrace the bad day and tell yourself, ‘This is completely awful, but this too shall pass’.
I remember one particular chemo session – I got one whiff of the hand sanitiser the nurse always used before administering the drug through my port, and I immediately started throwing up. I kept throwing up for what seemed like hours. It was October, Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and a law firm was at the oncology centre to bring goodie bags to the patients. And I was feeling the worst I had been. One lady from the law firm came up to me and told me to ‘be positive, think positive thoughts and you will feel better’. I knew she only meant well, but my positive thinking was not helping that day, and the throwing up would just not stop. I realised that this is it – sometimes you need to just accept a crappy situation for what it is and accept that it is an awful situation.
Are There Any Popular Misconceptions About Breast Cancer That You Think Women Need To Be Made Aware Of?
I think the most common misconception is that a breast-cancer diagnosis means the end of your life. The right treatment and early detection is important. A diagnosis does not mean the end of you.
What Message Would You Like To Provide Women?
Early detection is key! This is not the end. Reach out to other patients and build a positive network.
Today, Michelle is loving life. She’s in love with Johannesburg, her job, husband and fur-baby Jay-Jay. We wish her nothing but the best for the future.????
Image: Tabitha/Illuminate Photography