• Rachel Vercoe

One call to change it all

AT 25 years of age, there’s one phone call I could never have dreamt of receiving.

“Hi Rachel, I’ve got your test results,” the doctor said.

It was mid morning on a Tuesday, I was at work and writing up a story ready to upload online.

“I’m sorry to have to say this but it is breast cancer.

It’s crazy to think how fast your life can change after a quick phone call. One week I was thinking about the year ahead with endurance rides, trips out bush, two weeks at the Great Barrier Reef, a wedding in Tasmania in a few weeks, a country music festival and possible travel to either America or Western Australia to look forward to.

Now, I was being poked, prodded and overwhelmed with information about breast cancer and treatment plans with words being thrown around like triple positive, mastectomy, chemotherapy and fertility. I've always been healthy and active. I felt it too, so how could I be sick?

Fast-forward three weeks and it was a whirlwind of tests, doctor’s appointments, scans, meetings, a cancelled trip to Tasmania and trips back and forth to Sydney.

It all started on Wednesday, January 9. I booked in to see a doctor about a lump I’d found on my right breast. In February 2018, I’d found a similar lump in the exact same spot. I went to the doctor and booked in for an ultrasound but by the time I had the scan, the lump was gone.

This time around, I felt the lump again in December 2018. I left it for around three weeks to see if it would go. The doctor from the first time said it wasn't uncommon for lumps to come and go during a period cycle. When it didn’t, I booked in for an appointment, my mind in denial that it could actually be something serious.

I was referred to get an ultrasound where this time you could clearly see the lump. I was disappointed, upset there really was something there this time. Why couldn’t it have disappeared like the last one?

A second person was called into the ultrasound room to do another check, then a third person to do a fine needle biopsy. I went home scared and upset, my parents too.

I’d already made a follow up appointment with the doctor for Friday, January 25 so when she called on Thursday, January 17, over a week earlier, to ask if I could come in that day, I knew something wasn’t right.

“It’s very unusual for your age but the results have come back as suspicious for breast cancer,” she told me.

My best friend Eden tried to make that appointment with me but I was called in a minute too early. She was there when I walked out and we were both devastated to think that this could actually be what we feared. I called mum and dad who had been out camping and they came home straight away to be with me.

That afternoon was the most I cried in the past few weeks.

I now had a dilemma. The following day I was suppose to head to Guy Fawkes National park with my horse Willow and five other ladies for five nights of camping. Should I still go?

Of course I did. Why sit around home dwelling on the possibility that something might really be wrong when I could go out bush, camp, relax, spend time with my horse, be surrounded by brumbies and stay completely distracted.

The day I got back I had missed calls from doctors and appointments were quickly made with a surgeon and a core biopsy specialist at the radiation clinic.

Five nights in Guy Fawkes National Park with Willow was the perfect distraction.

I lay back on the bed and Mr Bean walked into the room. Well, not the real one but he could have played him in the movie and no one would have known the difference but I didn’t like this Mr Bean.

He had a nasty needle, didn’t give me enough anaesthetic and stuck in into the lump on my right breast. When he positioned it just right, snap, it let off a huge click and took a sample. He did this three times. I wish they gave me more anaesthetic. I was bruised for days.

From here, I resumed going back to work to distract myself and find normality. I spent the afternoons with Willow, Belle, mum, dad and Eden. A few days later, on Tuesday, January 29, I received the phone call.

“It is breast cancer.

I was sitting at my desk when the unknown number popped up on my phone screen. I answered, completely oblivious and by the time the call ended, I was a mess.

“I have to go,” I said as I stood up, gathered my wallet and keys and started to leave.

I’m so lucky to work with such amazing people who have been there for me from the beginning with support, genuine care and assurance that the work side of things wasn’t something I had to stress about.

That day I had a meeting with an amazing lady, the breast cancer specialist nurse here in Coffs. Mum, dad and Natalie who had recently come back home, all came along to my appointment and have been to nearly every one since. The specialist nurse gave me an idea of what to expect from here on out. Surgery, tests, chemo, fertility, genetics.

The following week I flew down to Sydney with Natalie. Mum and dad drove down and met us at the Breast Cancer Institute in Westmead Hospital. I had an appointment with Dr Elizabeth Elder’s team and was told my treatment plan. I had a chip inserted into my tumour so they can track it when chemo starts

and a portacath placed in my chest.

An appointment with a fertility specialist in Westmead was also arranged. Now this was a whole other ball game that wouldn’t have ever crossed my mind before being diagnosed. Apparently chemo can stop me getting my period ever again bringing on early menopause, therefore affecting my chances of having kids. As an insurance measure, I opted to go through the process of freezing eggs.

This involved ten days of self-injecting my stomach followed by a procedure at the hospital, which Natalie and I flew back down for. Chemo couldn’t start until this process was finished.

A nurse in Sydney also suggested cutting my hair short to ease the process of it falling out when chemotherapy treatments started. So, a couple of days later Eden grabbed the scissors, with my family surrounding us and chopped off my ponytail. I’d always thought about cutting it one day and donating it so here was my chance. I received a lovely email from Variety, the Children’s Charity for the donation.

Bye bye long hair! Before this cut, I hadn't been to a hair dresser in around nine years.

All of this in not quite two weeks. My life turned upside down without much time to sit back, take it all in and process. There have been big decisions, not nearly as many tears as I thought there would be, crazy words and a lot to take in but it’s one step at a time.

There is still one question I was never game to ask throughout all the appointments though, am I going to be ok?

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