Real Life

‘My cancer saved mum’s life’

Jean Hedges and Cushla Williams double diagnosis of breast cancer was something they wished they didn't have to face together.
'My cancer saved mum's life'

As mother and daughter, Jean Hedges and Cushla Williams are used to sharing everything. But their double diagnosis of breast cancer was something they wished they didn’t have to face together.

For Jean (61), breast cancer was always her worst fear, but she never could have imagined the nightmare scenario – both her and Cushla (36) were diagnosed with the disease within three weeks of each other.

First it was Cushla who discovered a small, hard lump under her arm. It led to the diagnosis of an aggressive breast tumour that was so far advanced, the mum of three is fortunate to be alive today.

Luckily, Jean’s cancer was detected early, thanks to a mammogram that she booked following her daughter’s shocking diagnosis. Neither woman will forget the day their lives changed forever two years ago when Cushla got the terrible news the underarm lump was linked to breast cancer.

“I did have a gut feeling that something wasn’t right,” admits Cushla. “I just knew it couldn’t be good.”

Cushla’s thankful her diagnosis spurred Jean into action.

She was right. Straight after her mammogram, the radiographer warned her, “It doesn’t look good.” A biopsy confirmed the worst – it was grade-three breast cancer. “I knew something was very seriously wrong when the doctor doing my biopsy gave me her home number and said to call her over the next 24 hours if I had any questions,” Cushla recalls.

The lump in her armpit was a sign her breast tumour had spread to her lymph nodes; if Cushla had ignored it any longer, the cancer would have spread throughout her body within months. She decided to have both breasts removed and underwent intense sessions of radiotherapy and chemotherapy.

“I’d had my three children and breastfed them all. I didn’t really need my breasts any more, to be honest,” she says. “I had a 30 to 40% chance of it returning in the other breast. There was no way I was going through chemotherapy and radiotherapy twice.”

Meanwhile, Jean was overdue for her regular mammogram and initially decided to put it off while she helped her daughter deal with her health crisis. “But then there was a little voice saying, ‘Go and have the mammogram,’ and eventually I listened to it. I had the mammogram and then I got the dreaded phone call asking me to come in,” she recalls.

“You could see by the look on the radiologist’s face that it was bad news, but because they’d caught it really early, it was just a little spot.”

Cushla and Jean are sharing their story to help raise awareness for the New Zealand Breast Cancer Foundation’s 2013 Pink Ribbon calendar, which they have posed for. The pair were both treated at the St Mark’s Breast Centre in Auckland. They smile when they recall Jean being rushed into an MRI scan, with Cushla at her side exclaiming, “Mum, you’re stealing my thunder!”

“We got to the stage where we’d turn up at the doctor’s office, but couldn’t remember who it was for or why we were there,” Jean smiles.

Jean’s cancer was caught early and she required a mastectomy and a breast reconstruction. She did not need radiotherapy or chemotherapy. “If I’d waited six months, I’d be in a much worse situation than I am now. Thank God I was spared chemo so we didn’t both need to go through that at the same time,” sighs Jean.

Cushla and Jean have always been close, but they never imagined their bond would extend to a dual cancer diagnosis.

Speaking to the Weekly from Cushla’s family home, both women find it an incredible coincidence they were facing the same health crisis at the same time.

Cushla’s breast cancer, in particular, is believed to be genetic, but surprisingly not from her mother’s side. Every female on her father’s side has had breast cancer, but doctors have yet to discover the gene that is likely to be responsible for their cancers.

One of the advantages of her breast reconstruction is that Cushla went from being small-chested to a C-cup. “I went in with not even an A-cup after feeding three children so for me it was like a boob job!” she laughs. “It’s a wonderful boost to your self-esteem because you feel so awful. The silver lining for me was new breasts.”

She is thankful she got her lump checked, despite initially thinking, at 34, that she was too young to have breast cancer. It’s now been two years since that day and she is deeply thankful that so far all her tests have been clear – and her health crisis may have also helped save her mother’s life.

“I think if I wasn’t diagnosed, Mum could easily have skipped her mammogram,” says Cushla. “But Mum went because I was diagnosed and that could have saved her life.”

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