Real Life

Helene Ravlich: ‘My cancer scare’

The beauty writer and socialite faced a shock diagnosis at the age of 40 – this is her story.
Helene Ravlich

“Turning 40 is a big deal for most women and is the perfect time to take stock of your life, health and goals. It’s when my doctor advised me to embark on a bit of a personal warrant of fitness, which included a mammogram.

It seemed the right thing to get straight to it – I have a wonderful husband and am mum to the most beautiful four-year-old boy. I wanted to make sure that I was in tip-top shape for many more years.

It wasn’t my first mammogram so I knew what to expect. I’ve had what has been called “cystic” breasts for quite a while now and the initial lumpiness that comes with that had led me to have a mammogram and a biopsy seven years ago.

I went into the radiologist’s with my mind on a million little worries – breast cancer was not one of them. So when I received a call the following Friday from the specialist after another biopsy, the last thing I expected to hear was, “We need to see you to discuss your results.”

The fact that I had to wait until Monday for an available appointment made my mouth go dry and I definitely hugged my son Wolf that much tighter over the weekend.

With zero history of breast cancer in my family, the last thing I expected to hear on Monday morning was that I had been diagnosed with just that. To say my jaw hit the floor and my heart skipped a beat would be putting it mildly. I felt a roaring in my ears as the blood rushed to my head and my breakfast looked likely to make a return appearance.

My first question was “Am I going to die?” to which the answer was, “It is early stage and definitely non-invasive”– the best case of a worst-case scenario I could handle. I didn’t cry and stayed that way for months – I just couldn’t afford to let my then-three-year-old son see that things were getting tough for me. It was to be business as usual for mummy as long as I could keep it up.

Within 10 days I was in surgery and then spent an agonising four weeks waiting for a plan to follow – chemotherapy had been ruled unnecessary, but daily radiation therapy was on the cards and five weeks’ worth of it at that. Plus there was a chance cancer would be found in my other breast.

Helene, pictured here with her son Wolf, is urging Kiwi women to stay on top of their regular check-ups

When radiation was finally put on the table, I was ready and it was just a matter of dealing with

side effects and medical bills and once again getting on with life – because I had to. When an MRI confirmed the cancer had not spread to my other breast two weeks ago, I was so prepared for bad news that I almost didn’t know whether to believe it.

The reactions of others to my diagnosis became an interesting study in human behaviour. Some best friends disappeared as our connection entered the realm of the “too hard basket”, while some acquaintances came forward and became my lifesavers.

A makeup artist that I’ve interviewed kept in constant text contact. One Friday night, she made me over before dinner out with my husband – which when you’re dealing with radiation burns is a major deal. To say I felt feminine again would be an understatement and Amber will now always be on my list of special people.

One thing I can say is if someone you know has breast cancer, please try to avoid the usual platitudes. Sure, breast cancer and the associated treatments give new meaning to “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”, but for many of us, statements like this are not helpful.

My main goal was to feel like me again, as quiet and unassuming as that may sound. Not everyone has an epiphany or a sudden need to climb a mountain after facing up to their own mortality. I just wanted to have a decent cup of coffee every day without feeling like utter rubbish.

Remember you don’t need to have cancer to find meaning in life. Shouldn’t you already be paying attention to your family and how wonderful they can be? If you’re healthy and reading this, then perhaps that’s something to think about.

When the Weekly asked me to write this story I hesitated, mainly because it seemed like such a private thing to go public with. I decided it was essential for the good of you beautiful, strong women out there.

Listen to your bodies and your doctors, and when it’s time for you to do your own warrant

of fitness then get to it. I found my cancer early on and took the best treatment plan possible.

Many women say to me, “But mammograms are scary.” Yes, they can be, but even scarier is the possibility of your family growing old without their mummy, wife, daughter or sister.”

Related stories

Get The Australian Woman’s Weekly NZ home delivered!  

Subscribe and save up to 38% on a magazine subscription.