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Personal cancer story

Sheila Lukacevic

In 2006, when I was 53, I was having a shower when I noticed a red mark and inflammation on my left breast. I quickly dismissed it but noticed that it was still there later that day.

When it hadn't faded two weeks later, I made a doctor's appointment.

Sheila Lukacevic

After a mammogram, ultrasound and biopsy, it was determined that I had pre-cancerous cells. From that point on, rather than having a mammogram every two years as part of the BreastScreen Australia program, I started having one every year.

Over time the inflammation eventually faded and my mammogram in 2007 was clear. However my mammogram and ultrasound in 2008 was a different story. When I noticed that the technicians kept going over one area on my left breast and I witnessed a look pass between them, I knew that something was wrong.

When I met with my doctor to get the results, he told me that there was something there but I would need a core biopsy to be sure of what it was. While my instincts told me that something was wrong, my husband reassured me that it was probably nothing, like it had been a few years earlier.

Unfortunately it wasn't nothing. When I was called to come in and get the results, I knew it was cancer as soon as I saw my doctor's face. He told me that the results showed a tumour in my breast. It wasn't very big, but it would need to be dealt with.

I don't remember driving home from the doctor, but I remember parking my car in the driveway. I was on autopilot. My husband worked afternoon shifts and didn't get home until 10:30 at night, so I sat on the couch and waited up for him. Out of the entire experience, telling him that I had cancer and seeing the look on his face was the hardest part. He is a very strong man, brought up not to show much emotion, but I watched him crumble at the news. He immediately thought I was going to die. I told him, "I'm not going anywhere, you'll have to put up with my nagging for the rest of your life!"

Knowing that my husband would find it difficult, I went to see the surgeon on my own the following day armed with the pathology report. He performed an ultrasound to show me where the tumour was and gave me two options: lumpectomy and chemotherapy or double mastectomy. However, he said that if I went with the lumpectomy option, we could potentially be having this conversation again in time to come. I told him that physically and emotionally I could handle most things, but I could only do this once. And with that, I decided on the spot to have a double mastectomy. Considering I had only received the diagnosis the day before, he commended me on my bravery.

I walked to the car and burst into tears. That was the moment it really hit me. It was so much to take in and in such a short amount of time.

My life is not the same as it was before cancer – there is no way that it could be. It's a different type of normal and that's okay."

Sheila Lukacevic

The following Tuesday I met with a plastic surgeon and I decided to get implants at the time of my mastectomy. By Thursday I was in hospital having surgery. My plastic surgeon was incredible. He was so empathetic having worked with a lot of women who'd had breast cancer.

I thought that because I'd had surgery, I wouldn't need chemotherapy, but my surgeon informed me that I needed to as an ‘insurance policy’. I was supposed to have six sessions, but ended up only completing two because I became so ill. After the first session I developed an infection around one of the implants and ended up back in hospital having to take them out. I had issues with the implants for about a year – they would go in and then need to be taken out again. In the end, I decided to go with a prosthesis.

The whole experience was incredibly tough. I had so many meltdowns that I lost count. Through it all my husband was my rock. I couldn't have gotten through it without him. I can say the same for my wonderful family and friends too. The support I had around me was invaluable.

Right before I had my first chemotherapy session, I also gave Cancer Council (13 11 20) a call. The doctors had been speaking about a procedure that I had to have and I didn't quite understand it. The oncology nurse on the other end of the phone was incredibly helpful and explained it to me. I also received a My Journey Kit from the Breast Cancer Network Australia and found the breast care nurses at the hospital very helpful. I believe it's also important to read a lot and feel informed about what's happening to your body. The key is to get as much information as possible so you know what your options are. I tried a couple of support groups, but determined that ultimately they weren't for me.

During my cancer experience, I wrote my feelings down every day in a diary and it really helped me to get through the bad days. Every so often I read through it and I can see how much emotion there is in what I have written. Now I won't write in it for six or so months and that tells me that I'm doing okay.

My life is not the same as it was before cancer – there is no way that it could be. It's a different type of normal and that's okay. My cancer diagnosis helped me to stop and smell the roses. Before I was diagnosed with cancer, I was leading a very hectic life and was very career driven. Two years ago, we moved from Melbourne to country Victoria and now have a much more laid-back lifestyle. I retired last year too, which was the best decision for me, and we are now enjoying all the little things in our lives.

Of course I worry that the cancer could come back. I have annual check-ups with my breast surgeon and oncologist to monitor everything. But for now, I’m enjoying the present. Diet and exercise are also an important part of my life and I really focus on looking after myself.

I truly believe that having the mammogram and ultrasound saved my life. I really encourage eligible women to participate in the BreastScreen Australia program, providing they are aware of the risks and benefits. Not finding anything is great news, but if they do find something, it doesn't have to be a death sentence. It could just be a blip in the road like it was for me. Treatments are so advanced these days, and picking up cancer early significantly increases your chances of survival.

Read more stories about people's personal experiences with cancer