Elective double mastectomy seen as ‘only option’ after station owner tests positive to breast cancer gene
The initial diagnosis of cancer is frightening. It’s the beginning of an ongoing life-changing journey of doctors, tests and treatments that will affect the entire family emotionally, physically and financially for years.
But what happens to patients who live in rural areas, the ones who live hours from the nearest doctor or hundreds of kilometres from life-saving treatment?
Bree Wakefield lives on Banoon Station in remote New South Wales. Nine years ago, she had genetic testing for the BRCA breast cancer gene after her aunty and father both tested positive for the genetic mutation.
Bree was not surprised at her positive result for the BRCA2 gene, as her family had a strong history of breast cancer.
Bree’s paternal grandmother and an aunty both lost their lives to breast cancer in the 1980s, and it was after another paternal aunty was diagnosed with breast cancer, that prompted Bree and her family to have the genetic testing.
Women who carry the BRCA gene, are at an increased risk of developing breast cancer, but it does not mean that those with the gene will definitely get breast cancer.
For Bree, living day to day with what she called a “ticking time bomb” was just too difficult.
The Wakefield family working together on the station. (ABC Mildura Swan Hill: Jennifer Douglas )
The Breast Cancer Network of Australia provide support for families who are concerned about their own risk of carrying the BRCA1 or BRCA2 breast cancer gene mutation.
They provide support for families wishing to have genetic testing and for those who need an early detection plan.
Their statistics show that more than 90 per cent of breast cancers are in fact not linked with any family history or genetic predisposition and that only 5–10 per cent of diagnosed breast cancers are actually caused by the genetic mutation.
Although these statistics are reassuring, Bree Wakefield was not prepared to take the gamble and organised a preventive health plan to regularly monitor her breasts to ensure an early detection.
Surveillance and early detection is key to successful breast cancer survival.
“Living so remotely, I had to regularly travel to Adelaide for diagnostic imaging and specialist appointments [and] I found that regular travel over 500 kilometres to Adelaide, really impacted on our life,” Bree said.
Bree and her kids in their on farm school of the air classroom. (ABC Mildura Swan Hill: Jennifer Douglas )
At the end of the day Bree was only hoping to get an early diagnosis, it was not going to prevent or reduce her risk of getting breast cancer.
Bree, a mother of three young children and only 33 years of age, chose to have an elective double mastectomy.
“The idea of an elective mastectomy is horrific, and some people may think that it was unnecessary, but for me there really wasn’t any other option,” she said.
“This was my only guarantee that I would be here for my husband and my children.”
The Wakefield family live, work and study on their remote sheep station between Broken Hill and Mildura. (ABC Mildura Swan Hill: Jennifer Douglas)
The difficulty in accessing the necessary diagnostic services and cancer treatment services in regional areas is an ongoing challenge.
Director of Oncology at the Albury Wodonga Cancer Centre, Craig Underhill knows firsthand the disadvantages that patients in the bush face when trying to access treatment.
“By any conservative measure there are at least a thousand people who die in regional Australia of cancer compared to their metropolitan counterparts,” Dr Underhill said.
Dr Underhill is concerned that survival rates in the bush are not improving in line with metropolitan areas. (ABC Mildura Swan Hill: Jennifer Douglas)
The disparity between regional and metropolitan cancer survival outcomes is nothing new. Cancer support groups have been lobbying for more regionally based cancer treatment centres for years. Access to radiotherapy in the country hospitals alone, will be reduce excessive travel for many regionally based cancer patients.
“Some women in regional Australia are still choosing to have a mastectomy rather than having breast conservation surgery,” Dr Underhill said.
Bree feels she made the right decision, and felt a weight had been lifted after the mastectomy.
“In hindsight having my children early made my decision easier, but it was still one of the hardest decisions I’ve had to make in my life,” she said.
Bree has seen many of her friends travel vast distances to get life-saving treatment because the services were not available in their local town.
“It would just be really great to see people in the bush have access to the same diagnostic and treatment services that we really need.”
For further support contact Breast Cancer Network Australia 1800 500 258 or www.bcna.org.au