To mark breast cancer awareness month, we’re sharing a brave young woman’s inspiring story. The cancer treatment that helped save Jane Wiggers de Vries’ life is only possible thanks to decades of medical research. Today, Jane is using Vodafone Foundation’s DreamLab app to help speed up research into better and more personalised treatments. Jane hopes that in the future, others won’t have to go through what she has.
Jane used to have long, strawberry-blonde luscious hair that hung down at her waist. Today, at 25 years of age, she flaunts a pixie style haircut – but not by choice.
Her hairstyle is what has regrown after a six-month long chemotherapy program. Jane was diagnosed with breast cancer last July at the age of 24.
Breast cancer is the most common cancer affecting Australian women each year.
Jane, who is also a nurse at St Vincent’s Private Hospital in Sydney, New South Wales says it was only at the moment she realised she was going to lose all of her hair that it ‘hit’ her:
“I thought, ‘right, I’m a cancer patient now’. At work, I was so nervous about getting there and having no hair. But as soon as I got there, I put on my theatre hat, and with my head scarf on no one really knew… but for me that was really huge,” she says.
Prior to being diagnosed with cancer, Jane was a healthy 24-year-old who enjoyed her job as a nurse working in the operating theatres. She regularly kept fit, exercising at the gym and high-intensity CrossFit training.
It was only when she was lying in bed one evening that she noticed an unusual lump on her left breast.
“I thought, ‘What is that lump? Did I pull a muscle or something?’ It wasn’t painful at all, and so I went into work and asked some of the other nurses, ‘Can you guys feel this, or is it my imagination?’. They said they could definitely feel it.”
An initial ultrasound of the lump indicated it was only a cyst, which at the time, Jane thought would go away. But after noticing the lump didn’t disappear, she was advised to get another scan and biopsy, which revealed she had an aggressive tumour that was already measuring 4.5 centimetres.
“One morning [the doctor] asked me… ‘Do you have any history of breast cancer?’, and I said ‘No’. [I then remembered] my mother’s cousin [had been diagnosed], I just didn’t think of it at the time. When you’re asked that question, you immediately only think of your mother, or your grandparents, so I didn’t think much of it.”
In fact, after being diagnosed with breast cancer Jane returned to work saying it felt “like a bad dream.”
“I would wake up thinking, ‘Is this real life? ‘Is this me?’, and it’s still kind of like that,” she explains.
Tackling it head on
Not only did Jane continue to work during her treatment, she also kept up her exercise regime, admitting her aim was to live life as normal as possible.
“One minute I’d be holding my patient’s hand telling them their surgery will be done in no time. Before I knew it, I was running downstairs and getting my own cancer cells treated.”
But, Jane confesses, while she did have good days, she also had some really bad days. She recalls getting chemotherapy on Christmas Eve was one of her lowest points.
“Having blood transfusions and being on all the steroids was just so exhausting. I felt so nauseous but was trying to be positive. My family and friends were saying, ‘C’mon let’s dress up’, but I just didn’t want to. I didn’t want to be around anyone,” she says.
“Everyone was telling me that I looked beautiful and they were so kind, but it just didn’t help and I just wanted to get away.”
Following chemotherapy, Jane underwent a bilateral mastectomy, which she recalls as being particularly difficult, knowing it was her colleagues that were operating on her.
“In a way it was good because I knew exactly what was going on and I knew I was in the best possible place to get it done. But I remember asking one of the girls if it was hard putting me to sleep and she said, ‘Yes…it really broke my heart’.”
The final stage of her breast cancer treatment was radiotherapy – five days a week for five weeks.
The unexpected chats
In addition to focusing on beating cancer, one other difficult decision Jane was forced to make during her treatment was whether she wanted to have kids in the future – a question she said her and her partner of five years, Cameron, had never had to think about. She explains one of the potential side effects of the cancer treatment was that it could lead to permanent infertility and early onset of menopause.
Cancer is not unfamiliar to Jane. Her father, who is a doctor himself, had previously been diagnosed and treated for cancer found in his tonsils. Her mum was recently treated for melanoma, something she had to deal with three years prior.
Jane says one of the coping mechanisms that helped her through her treatment was taking several mini getaway trips. If it wasn’t to her parent’s home in the Blue Mountains to escape Sydney’s bustle, it was short breaks with Cameron down to Melbourne, Cairns for the Greater Barrier Reef, and more recently to the snow for a skiing trip.
She also has monthly catch-ups with other breast cancer patients and clinical psychologists at The Kinghorn Cancer Centre, part of the Garvan Institute of Medical Research and St Vincent’s Hospital.
The fight is not yet over
While she is now cancer free, Jane says her battle will never be over, given tests have shown she carries a gene mutation that is susceptive to cancer. Doctors have also informed her she has a very high risk of being diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Unfortunately, it’s not easy to diagnose ovarian cancer in its early stages. Jane now makes regular visits to see her gynaecologist to get blood tests and scans.
“I remember going through radiotherapy and getting headaches for a week, and it was probably because I was exhausted. My radiation oncologist said, ‘Let’s just get a CT of your brain’. To have that in my thoughts, that my cancer could spread to my brain. I don’t want to be thinking about it, but unfortunately, that’s the reality for the rest of my life,” she says.
Jane says one of her greatest learnings through her journey has been realising how willing people are to help those with cancer.
For example, generosity saw a stranger pay for Jane’s visit to the hairdresser. More recently, a woman, who attended a Garvan Institute fundraising event and heard Jane speak about her diagnosis and treatment, decided to donate her prize to Jane – business class flights to the US – which Jane and Cameron plan to use for a much-needed holiday.
Wanting to pay forward the generosity she has experienced, Jane is now using the power of her smartphone through the DreamLab app to help fast-track breast cancer research.
— Garvan Institute of Medical Research (@GarvanInstitute) September 29, 2016
“It’s very easy to use; you just select how much data you want to donate, charge your phone and that’s it! Research really is the key to improving cancer treatments and outcomes, and this is such an easy way to help,” she says.
“I’d really urge everyone to do their small bit, because collectively it can amount to so much. It’s all about speeding up the pace of data crunching so that discoveries can be made more quickly. And who knows, maybe you, or someone you love will be the recipient of that discovery one day,”
To fast track cancer research to find better treatments, download the DreamLab app now to help solve cancer while you sleep.
1: A compatible handset is required. Downloading DreamLab will consume data. Once downloaded, DreamLab can be used when your device (i) is connected to a charging source and (ii) has mobile network or WiFi connectivity. Mobile data to use DreamLab is free for Vodafone Australia customers on the Vodafone Australia network. Roaming incurs international rates.
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