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"This can't be happening to me! I'm only 34!"
These were the horrified thoughts which flooded into Erryn Sims' mind after she learned of her shocking triple negative breast cancer diagnosis just days before Christmas in 2018.
“It was surreal to get the diagnosis," Erryn tells Yahoo Lifestyle during Breast Cancer Awareness Month, adding that she kept thinking: "Breast cancer is an older person's disease!"
But she's since learned the harrowing reality and is sharing her journey with the hope of encouraging younger women to watch out for breast cancer symptoms.
"I’ve since met women as young as 23 dealing with breast cancer," she tells us.
It was the Saturday before Christmas in 2018 when Erryn came across a new lump on her left breast. What followed was a rush of medical appointments, including a mammogram, ultrasound and biopsy.
“The doctor told me that whatever it was, it would have to come out," Erryn recalls.
"One moment I was lying in a surgery, apologising to the doctor for wasting his time, the next I was on the phone to my GP, telling me that I need to come in.
“I couldn’t believe what was happening, my youngest daughter was only 18 months old. I was thinking ‘I need to be here for my children - they need their mum’.”
For Erryn, her breast cancer diagnosis opened up her awareness to just how many people under 40 are impacted by breast cancer.
And, with many awareness campaigns still focused on those over 50, she’s passionate about encouraging younger women to learn what is normal for their breasts and be able to spot changes quickly.
Most commonly diagnosed cancer in Australia
Breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer in Australia. More than 230,000 women and men currently live with its impacts.
One in seven women and one in 700 men are diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime.
And, as Associate Professor Samantha Oakes from the National Breast Cancer Foundation (NBCF) explains, early detection is key to successful recovery.
"Someone diagnosed with stage one breast cancer has a 100 per cent chance of reaching their five-year milestone, whereas someone diagnosed at stage four has a 32 per cent chance of reaching that five-year milestone," she says.
From the point of diagnosis to commencing treatment (a three-week window), Erryn’s cancer had already grown by 1cm and was progressing quickly.
After intensive treatment, including four rounds of AC chemotherapy, 12 rounds of taxol chemotherapy and 16 rounds of radiation, Erryn is now thankfully cancer free.
But she will continue to have regular ongoing medical check ups across the next 10 years to make sure nothing has changed.
Erryn's message to other women
“Please, from the time that you develop breasts, start checking them," Erryn says.
"Get to know them and what is normal for your body. This makes it so much easier to tell if something changes, and to act quickly."
She also adds to be 'body aware' and check your breasts regularly.
"I don't want anyone to go through what my family did," she adds.
"I’m a mum of three girls and I don’t want any of them to go through what I did. If you notice something has changed, talk to your doctor straight away.”
Covid’s impact on breast screening, cancer detection
Covid-19 has posed unique challenges for preventative health services, with increased fears of being around medical centres and restrictions on attending non-urgent appointments.
Throughout 2020, closures of screening facilities and stay-at-home orders have caused a significant drop in the number of breast screenings and breast-cancer-related surgeries in Australia.
As lockdowns continue, health experts warn there could be a sharp rise in late-stage diagnoses of breast cancer within the community.
The NBCF said there were 1,000 fewer breast-cancer-related surgeries in 2020 (including diagnostic surgeries like biopsies).
They estimated there could be as many as 2,000 missed or delayed diagnoses as a result, the fear being that this would lead to an increase in more advanced and hard-to-treat breast cancers.
“We’ve heard from many people who have been impacted by lockdowns [delaying or cancelling their screening and surgeries] and these stories bring home the reality of the importance of cancer research," a statement from the foundation said.
"Through research, we’ve changed the five-year survival rate from 76 per cent to now 90 per cent.”
The foundation - which is 100 per cent community funded - is calling for investment from the Australian public to help them continue their research and meet their mission of zero deaths from breast cancer.
Their focus is to understand risk factors, develop new ways of detecting and treating breast cancer, and improve quality of life and treatment outcomes for cancer patients.
Breast self-checks: What to look for
How breasts look and feel differs from person to person.
The McGrath Foundation encourages everyone to look, feel and learn.
Look at your breasts in the mirror and notice all the details, including shape and colouring of your breasts and nipples.
They suggest doing this first with your hands by your sides, and again with your hands in the air.
Feel your breasts and nipples, and also the areas around them (your upper chest, under your bra line, and under your armpits.
Learn your normal - get to know the look and feel of your breasts, and if you notice any signs or symptoms such as a new lump, thickening of your breast tissue, changes to the shape of your nipple or breast, or anything else out of the ordinary, speak with your doctor straight away.
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