Real Life

I’ll sell my home if I have to

While fighting for her life against breast cancer, Jo Byrne must raise thousands of dollars to pay for a drug that could save her.

It was the toughest question Auckland teacher Jo Byrne had ever had to answer. one of her pupils put his hand up and asked her, “Are you going to die?” Jo, who had been explaining to her class of nine and 10-year-olds that she would be away for a while because she had breast cancer, had to pause before answering.

“No,” she told her class, the cancer was survivable and she was going to do her very best to beat it. Unfortunately, “doing her best” means finding $112,000 to pay for a drug that may increase her chances of conquering the disease.

Jo’s cancer is HER-2 positive, and her oncologist has told her she should have Herceptin.

Jo (38) is doing what she can to find the money and has been overwhelmed by the support she has received from friends, family and colleagues. Even her pupils at Green Bay Primary School have held cake stalls to raise cash.

But she’s angry that at a time when she should be pouring all her energy into fighting cancer, she is having to resort to selling items on the Tradeoe website so she can afford to pay for the treatment she needs.

“It’s not right,” says Jo, who is mum to 16-year-old Siobhan. “Australia has agreed to fund it, other countries all over the world are paying for it, but we’re not. Aren’t women important enough in New Zealand? The bottom line is, women who have money are going to have a better chance of surviving than women who haven’t – and it’s not fair that money should make such a difference.”

Jo was diagnosed with breast cancer in oay, after noticing a lump while she was curled up reading a book. “It was horrible. Really, really frightening. The only people with cancer I have known have died and you think the worst. You think, `Am I going to die?’ But then you start to get it in perspective and you realise there are things you can do to help yourself survive. So you do what you can.”

Jo has had surgery as well as standard chemotherapy and has recently started taking Herceptin – at between $6000 and $7000 a time – thanks to money she and her partner Julie Russell made from the sale of their previous home.

“But it’s not enough and I have to keep finding more money to pay for the whole course of Herceptin. People have been incredibly generous and done amazing things like organising karaoke evenings. I am so grateful. But I know that $112,000 is a lot of money and if it comes down to it, we will look at selling the house.”

Ironically, not long after Jo’s cancer was first discovered, she was offered taxpayer-funded Herceptin as it was thought the disease had already spread to her liver.

“Because they thought I might have secondary cancer, I was told I could have it for free. Luckily, I didn’t have secondaries, but it’s ridiculous that you can’t have Herceptin for free to try to prevent cancer spreading but you can if it has already spread – it’s like putting the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff.”

After nearly six months off work having treatment, Jo is looking forward to returning to teaching soon.

“I need to start earning some money,” she says. “And I’ve missed the kids. They have been wonderful.”

She admits she debated whether to tell her class the truth but, even though standing in front of them to break the news was very difficult, she’s glad she did it.

“They were quite upset but we talked it through and I think it was important to be honest with them. As a teacher, I believe there is a lesson to be learned in everything.” Story by Donna Fleming Photograph by Phil Crawford

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