Women united in breast cancer journey

ARARAT - Susan Crutch and Sherri Holtham are both on very different breast cancer journeys, but for both women there has never been any sense of 'why me?'

Sherri Holtham, 48 is currently undergoing breast cancer treatment after a double mastectomy, and while Susan, 63, is also undergoing treatment, her cancer is terminal.

Susan was diagnosed with breast cancer 12 months ago, but tests showed immediately that it had already metastasised.

"This meant it was already in my bones. So it is a terminal cancer, it's not fixable," she said.

The cancer was first found in her ribs and later in her hip.

"Initially I went to the doctor with a lump and the first doctor I saw said 'that's ok' but I went back six weeks later, so by the time I'd done all that I'd got used to the idea (of having breast cancer)," she said of her reaction to the diagnosis.

"I was fairly devastated because of the terminal nature of it.

"But once I came to terms with that I decided that I was lucky, in a sense, my kids were grown up - I could get run over by a bus. I'd finished work, all those sorts of things. I'm not thirty, I'm old enough to die."

While the cancer is not 'fixable' it is treatable and Susan has undergone 12 months of chemotherapy which will continue.

"I've had a lot of sickness because of the chemo but I'm not now which is good. I was in hospital for 16 or 17 days, I wasn't well. That was a concern, because I didn't want to have two years or three years of being sick, I'd rather have one year and be well.

"It's been very difficult because I've been very sick and I made the decision I wasn't going to have any more treatment, because I couldn't live my life. I couldn't do anything, I was basically in bed for four weeks throwing up, I couldn't go anywhere I was so nauseous, so I said then I'm not doing this any more, I would much rather live a shorter life without anything. But then they changed the treatment and I'm fine."

One of Susan's biggest disappointments was having to give up a trip to Italy which had been booked prior to her diagnosis, however, she has managed a three week trip to Bali, despite having difficulty walking because of hip pain. Medication has now helped this pain.

At present Susan is well and back to enjoying some of the activities she loves, including walking.

Susan's message to women is to be vigilant.

"I had regular mammograms every two years, when ever they sent me the letter I went," she said.

"You have to be really, really vigilant about your own health, you have to take control of it and say no this isn't right. People really do have to take some responsibility for it.

"I think the other thing is don't always trust it. I've had two lumps removed, one removed just before Christmas (before the diagnosis) I could feel the lump, but the mammogram didn't show it up, even though we felt it, so you've got to be vigilant and strong and push for it."

For the Holtham family, Sherri's diagnosis in September last year was a double blow, with Sherri's sister Kelli Holtham-Felini also diagnosed with breast cancer in April last year.

After Sherri received her breast cancer diagnosis she underwent a bilateral (double) mastectomy at the end of October.

Her chemotherapy treatment began at the end of November and chemotherapy and radiation treatment will continue for most of this year.

Sherri expects to be able to undergo breast reconstruction surgery about six months after her treatment has finished.

Sherri's first reaction was denial, given that her sister had already been diagnosed with breast cancer.

"I'd always had six monthly ultrasounds because I'd always suffered from clusters of cysts in my breast, for me my mindset was that that is exactly what is was again (cysts) and I'd had my last ultrasound in April 2013 and it showed nothing," Sherri said.

"But I had a lot of hormone changes, weight gain, tiredness, fatigue from May through to when I was diagnosed and my nipple became slightly inverted just before I was diagnosed. So to me when I got the results and having had a sister diagnosed in April I guess I was in denial because I thought I had certainly escaped the ratio of one in five, given that it was already in the family," she said.

Initially Sherri didn't want to undergo a mastectomy.

"It was 'take anything but not my boobs', however, it didn't take very long for me to get over that initial distress and it being terribly surreal to making the decision to have a bilateral," she said.

The medical team did not suggest having the right breast removed, it was Sherri's decision and in hindsight a good one.

"After the surgery, after MRIs, mammograms and ultrasounds I was still told my right breast was clear, but when the biopsy was done and histology performed after surgery there was a carcinoma in my right breast," Sherri said.

Sherri has had strong involvement when it came to her treatment regime, which has included both medical treatment and alternative therapies.

"I've done a lot of research. I had an amazing professional team around me, including my naturopath from Adelaide. People say you don't have choices, that your choices might be limited, however you do have choices to involve whoever you want to in your treatment," she said.

"So my belief is that knowledge gives us power and it's certainly what's worked for me, so with a combination of natural therapies and modern medicine I believe I've got the perfect balance. My naturopath has built my immune system right from before I had surgery and so I have had no side effects from the treatment, no fatigue and actually I feel better now than pre diagnosis."

Sherri is positive about the future and believes her prognosis 'is fabulous'.

"I haven't been officially told that," she said, laughing.

"But I can tell you that not only do I feel great, I know myself that my cancer - and I talk in terms of I had cancer - my cancer for me was removed when they did the surgery and the treatment is just part of the journey to make sure it's gone for good. I've never deviated from that."

With a mindset of 'knowledge gives you power', Sherri hopes to pass on her knowledge to other women facing breast cancer.

"I know that I've been put on this earth to inspire and empower women in my job and community, and certainly this is just another extension of my empowerment and the knowledge I've been able to acquire," she said.

Self employed in the area of lingerie sales - by her own admission she's the 'bras and knickers girl' - Sherri said part of what the company she works for does is partner with the McGrath Foundation and Olivia Newton John Cancer and Wellness Centre.

"So it's part of what I already did, and this journey for all of us - Sue, Kelli and myself - and others affected, really just raised my awareness and the information I can put out there for other women," she said.

Both women are helping to raise awareness of the Breast Cancer Network Australia (BCNA).

The BCNA is the peak national organisation representing and supporting Australians affected by breast cancer and Sherri's sister Kelli Holtham-Felini is encouraging the Ararat community to attend and support the 'Rockers for Knockers' ball which will feature four bands and a goods and services auction ongoing throughout the night.

Funds raised from the Rockers for Knockers ball will directly assist BCNA to support Australians personally affected by breast cancer, which includes providing the My Journey Kit, a free comprehensive information resource for women newly diagnosed with breast cancer.

Rockers for Knockers will be held on February 8 at the Ararat Performing Arts Centre with entry $30 per head (18 plus only).

Tickets are available through Felini Health and Fitness, 2 Taggs and the Court House Hotel or by contacting Mark Hughes (0400254449), Scott Felini (0427725239) and Kelli (0438551671).

"I've never looked at my situation as a death sentence. I walk out my door every day knowing that there's always somebody worse off than I am and it's about offering those people support," Sherri said.

"That's what my life is about, that's what my job is about, that's what me as a person is about.

"I said to the oncologist and breast surgeon, if I'm going to do it, I'm going to do it once, I'm going to learn the lessons and I'm going to do it well and I'm going to share my knowledge with other people. It's empowering. I won't do it again, I won't need to, but I will stand as an advocate for other people.

"They now say breast cancer is an epidemic, so if you're not touched by breast cancer you are extremely fortunate.

"For the others, we need to team together and create necessary funds and more awareness and share our knowledge," Sherri said.

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