Sitting in the crowd at the funeral of Helena McAlpine last year, Coast FM radio host Lorna Subritzky made a silent promise to her late friend – and to herself.
Helena passed away aged just 37 after a long battle with breast cancer and in her final years, she badgered her former colleague-turned-close friend, Lorna, to commit to doing two things – buying health insurance and getting a mammogram.
“At the time that she insisted I get health insurance, I was a solo mum, cutting back on bills, but Helena said, ‘Your kids need you,’ so I got the insurance... but I didn’t get the mammogram,” admits Lorna.“So I sat there in September and I promised her that I would go and get that mammogram. I thought, ‘I’m over 45, so it’s free anyway, and it’s no big deal – it’s just a matter of making time.’”
It’s something Lorna’s sure many will identify with – she makes sure her kids go to their check-ups, but for herself, they often fall by the wayside.
But luckily for Lorna (48), she made good on her promise to Helena.
She was healthy and had felt nothing untoward during self-checks, but after her breast check, she received a follow-up call saying they’d found something on her mammogram. She booked in for a biopsy.
A week later, she was in the office of the breast surgeon with her husband Steve by her side, when the surgeon told them it was cancer – high grade ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS).
“Funnily enough, it had been the first phone call telling me about the need for a biopsy that was a real shock, so sitting in the office, I felt quite prepared,” says Lorna. “The thing with DCIS is that at any stage, it can break through the cell wall and become invasive cancer, so the advice was to have a partial mastectomy, followed by radiation. It wasn’t until they let me sit in another little room to let it sink in that it hit me – I remember there was a box of tissues on the table and that made me realise that, yes, this was a big deal.”
Luckily, Lorna had that health insurance Helena insisted on. She was able to have surgery on December 21 – a partial mastectomy that went without a hitch.
“I don’t know how other people feel, but when I heard I had cancerous cells in my body, I wanted them out, immediately,” she tells, shaking her head.
“Afterwards, although everything closed down for Christmas, my surgeon kept in touch with the lab and sent me a text on New Year’s Eve with emojis of bubbles, corks popping and fireworks, saying the cancer hadn’t spread. That was a good New Year’s Eve,” she laughs. “I went straight out and bought Champagne.”
Radiotherapy came next and it proved taxing.
While she says she felt “reasonably okay” during the treatment, it’s a cumulative therapy, meaning she didn’t feel the full effects until over a week later when her immune system crashed.
Lorna says she plunged into a sort of despair.
“I think I was almost a little depressed. It only lasted about two weeks, but at the time, it felt like I was never going to get any better – that this was the new normal.”
She came out in rashes, and, with a low immune system, picked up every bug. And she’d worry.
“My biggest fear was that cancer would always be in my peripheral vision – that I’d get a cough and wonder if it was something more, or that I’d obsessively check my breasts from then on. But as soon as my immune system recovered, that fear went away.”
She credits a dose of lypo-spheric vitamin C – and the support of family, including son Max (17), and daughters Lucy (15) and Zoe (6) – for getting her back on her feet.
And, of course, the gratitude she feels towards Helena for having found it so early is almost too hard to put into words.
“I’d never met anyone like her and I never will – it still really upsets me to talk about her, actually,” she says, blinking back tears. “She was such a vibrant, out-there person, that I never thought she was actually going to go.”
Surely Helena would be proud of her friend for getting that mammogram, though?
“I don’t know that she’d be proud,” says Lorna with a laugh. “I think she’d be saying, ‘About bloody time! Why did it take me passing away for you to finally get around to doing it?!’”
But now Lorna is determined to pay it forward and encourage as many women as she can to get checked.
“Mine wasn’t a lump – it was nothing I could have felt myself,” she cautions. “So I would like every woman who is eligible for the free check – that’s every woman between 45 and 69 – to get in and get checked. Make that appointment! Anyone outside of that age bracket, I also encourage to check their breasts regularly and if there is a lump, don’t go, ‘Oh, God, I don’t want to know what that is.’
"My advice would be the sooner you check it out, you’ll get relief or treatment – which could save your life.”
Words: Alice O'Connell
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