“I have breast cancer on my OE”

From the team of Capsule

Phoebe Roche was forced to cut her OE short and move to Palmerston North in 2017 when she was diagnosed with breast cancer, aged 29. Five years later, after undergoing multiple surgeries, chemotherapy and radiation therapy, Phoebe talks about how the diagnosis changed her life for the better and to highlight how breast cancer doesn’t just affect older womenFr.

OPINION: I was living in London, working as an in-house physiotherapist for a large law firm, when I found the lump.

I wasn’t too worried. I thought maybe it was just something hormonal, but I knew I had to get it checked out, so I went to see my GP.

The doctor thought it was worth investigating and I was referred to a breast specialist. I had an ultrasound and a biopsy, which confirmed that I had DCIS.

At every moment, they all assured me that it would be nothing. When I was given the diagnosis, the specialist was quite upset because there was nothing to indicate it. I have no family history and was otherwise young, fit and healthy.

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I feel lucky enough to have been taken seriously and to have done something about the lump when I found it.

The initial treatment plan was extensive local excision followed by radiotherapy. But after the operation, they realized the cancer was much more invasive than the biopsy had shown, and they had no clear margins.

Phoebe Roche was forced to cut her OE short and move to Palmerston North in 2017 when she was diagnosed with breast cancer, aged 29.


Phoebe Roche was forced to cut her OE short and move to Palmerston North in 2017 when she was diagnosed with breast cancer, aged 29.

So I went back for a re-excision, a sentinel lymph node biopsy, and then a full axillary clearance. Cancer was discovered in my lymph nodes and I needed chemotherapy, so at that time I decided to move to New Zealand to be closer to my family.

This decision threw a spanner in the works. I felt really settled in London – I had already been there for two years and was in two months on a new three-year visa.

I thought I would be able to handle the treatment in London, and I was lucky to have my mum and brother travel for my operations. But I had a pretty tough time with the surgeries – I ended up with a nasty infection and a seroma, and had to take antibiotics for a few months.

I didn’t want the cancer to tell me what to do, but eventually I realized that moving made sense. Due to my age, I was offered fertility treatment and that’s when it all started to get overwhelming. It helped me prioritize what was important and I realized that being closer to my family would reduce stress in an already stressful situation.

I returned to New Zealand in December, having had surgery in September and another in October. I was lucky that a family friend was a surgeon working at the hospital, so he was able to arrange my transfer of care from London.

The day I got home, I had appointments with a surgeon and an oncologist, and started chemo the following week.

I’ve been through six rounds of chemo, four weeks of radiation, and I’ve been on tamoxifen for five years. I think I did pretty well with these treatments because the side effects weren’t too bad. The chemo was what I expected, quite rough towards the end but now knowing what others have been through, mine could have been much worse. With the radiation, I only had a mild skin reaction and no fatigue.

And even though the tamoxifen started badly, it’s better now, and I only have joint pain and hot flashes once in a while.

The diagnosis changed my life, but largely for the good. It definitely gave me more meaning, especially when it came to work.

While undergoing chemotherapy, I trained to become a specialized cancer rehabilitation physical therapist, and now I teach Pinc and Steel classes to help people with their physical rehabilitation after cancer. I am also a certified lymphedema specialist.

I went in a direction that I probably wouldn’t have considered if I hadn’t gone through breast cancer, so that’s a positive thing to come out of that.

When you’re in treatment, you kind of know what you need to do at each stage, so you’re like, “OK, so I’m doing this, and then I have to do this. I found that it was the end of the treatment where I had the most trouble.

When you go through it it’s very addictive and once you’re done you can feel a bit lost. It took me a few years to realize that cancer was something I had been through, but it didn’t define me. I feel good now, really enjoying the work and am back at Palmerston North.

What helped me the most through it all was talking about it. That’s how I dealt with everything, and it meant that others understood what I was going through, so they could better support me.

I know everyone is different and I know young people can be fiercely independent and not want to ask for help. But my best advice would be to keep your friends and family involved and let them help you out.

Getting to know your breasts and what’s normal and getting regular self-checks is something I talk about a lot now – everyone should do this, especially young women who can’t get screened. I had always done well to have Pap smears, but breast cancer was never on my radar. I didn’t think it was the cancer of a youngster.

At no time did I wonder if I was going to survive or not because I was told that breast cancer could be cured if caught early, and quickly did something about my lump .

Now I want to get the message across that it’s so important to go get whatever you’re worried about checked out. You won’t waste anyone’s time watching it.

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