When Deb Robertson was diagnosed with cancer, she did not think she would survive 10 years.
When Deb Robertson was diagnosed with cancer, she did not think she would survive 10 years. Valerie Horton

'Once you hear 'cancer' you stop hearing everything else'

TEN years ago, Deb Robertson looked at her 11-year-old son Aidan and thought, "I won't see him turn 21”.

The Fraser Coast resident had just turned 43 and she was still reeling from the outcome of her first mammogram.

"They discovered a lump,” she said of the life-changing news she received five days before Christmas 2007.

"Within an hour I was off getting a biopsy and the results showed that I had a very aggressive cancer.

"I was in a state of shock and numbness as to what my future was going to be.

"Once you hear the word 'cancer' you basically stop hearing everything else.

"After the first minute or two you tune out to protect yourself.

"At 43, with your first mammogram, you're not expecting to have news that will change the direction of your life.”

Mrs Robertson wanted to "get on with Christmas”, so she only told immediate family about the diagnosis and tried to put it to the back of her mind until the new year.

Early in 2008, she had a lumpectomy during which surgeons found two other growths.

"They were all behind each other, neither the doctor or myself could feel it,” Mrs Robertson said.

"The surgeon took the lumps out and then I was back in about two weeks later to have more breast tissue taken away.

"They took out 22 lymph nodes with the second operation and none had cancer in them so I was quite relieved.

"We were feeling this is it, it'll all be good.”

But follow-up tests - including bone scans - soon knocked the then school secretary for six.

"That's when I got the news that my breast cancer was secondary (metastatic) - it had entered the top of my hip bone,” Mrs Robertson said.

"I decided that if only 1% survive this I was going to be in that 1%.

"I was going to survive - how I was going to do it when everyone was telling me I was going to die? I don't know.”

Over three weeks she had 19 radiation treatments in Brisbane, which meant Mrs Robertson and her husband were unable to work and they had to rely on the goodness of friends to care for their little boy back on the Fraser Coast.

She had four sessions of chemo in Brisbane but the impact on her health meant she was able to have the following 15 weeks of treatment in Hervey Bay.

"You have your good days, you have your bad days, you have days where you're numb and you have days where you just watch telly but you don't remember anything about it,” Mrs Robertson said.

She said the support of her husband, friends and family meant she was able to focus on keeping her strength up through good times and bad.

"I felt like my whole life was in the hands of the doctors,” she said.

"It was like I needed some control back - I decided not to be sick any more and to get off the couch and do something.

"I started reading everything I could get my hands on and I finally realised that having healthy food would give me the strength to tackle this.”

Ten years later and Mrs Robertson is the healthiest she has ever been and, more importantly, she's about to celebrate one of the biggest achievements of her life - her only son's 21st birthday in August.

"I decided when I was diagnosed that I would do everything in my power to be here for his 21st,” she said.

While Mrs Robertson is easy-going and friendly, she actually shies away from the spotlight.

That means that, even after 10 years, only a few people know she survived cancer.

"I didn't want to be labelled as a cancer patient,” she said of her reluctance to speak publicly about her experience.

"I went to great lengths not to be out there in that sense.

"I found the reactions very awkward.”

Mrs Robertson is today telling her story publicly for the first time in the hope she will inspire other women to take control of their health.

"You're never immune to cancer,” she said.

"If you think there's something going on, don't hesitate and if your doctor thinks it is nothing, go and see another doctor because you know what's going on with your body.”

Breast cancer is the most common cancer affecting Australian women, with 48 females a day told they have the disease.

Breast Cancer Network Australia CEO Christine Nolan said about 17,586 women and 144 men would be diagnosed this year. BCNA has a range of resources, including the My Journey Kit for people newly diagnosed with breast cancer and Hope & Hurdles, for women and men living with metastatic breast cancer.

  • For more details: bcna.org.au or phone 1800 500 258.

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graphic Local

Cancer Council Queensland calls for more public investment in research and other initiatives to improving healthcare across our region

CANCER is our region's biggest killer.

ARM Newsdesk can reveal that cancer was behind 16.7% of the 4655 deaths on the Fraser Coast between 2010 and 2014.

Of the 782 people who died from cancer, the 2016 Social Health Atlas of Australia shows lung cancer claimed 195 lives, colorectal cancer killed 63 residents and breast cancer ended the lives of 50 women in the five years.

Circulatory system diseases were our region's second biggest killers, with 326 lives lost. Heart disease killed 173 residents and strokes cost 68 people their lives.

With 163 deaths, external causes were our region's third biggest killer.

These included 28 people dying in traffic accidents and 70 lives lost to suicide or self-harm.

Respiratory diseases were our fourth biggest killers, with 141 deaths over the five years.

Fraser Coast residents were least likely to die of endocrine, nutritional and metabolic diseases, with only 39 lives lost to these between 2010 and 2014.

The Cancer Council Queensland says 13% of Fraser Coast cancer deaths can be prevented and cancer patients in regional and disadvantaged areas suffered "significantly worse” outcomes than urban patients.

"Possible reasons for these disparities include reduced access to health care and diagnostic or screening services as well as differences in cancer risk factors such as tobacco smoking, diet, alcohol consumption and physical activity,” CCQ executive manager Katie Clift said.

"Those who live outside the reach of major health centres are more likely to die within five years of their cancer diagnosis.

"More research is needed to identify the reasons for the disparities and to develop targeted strategies that help close the gap for regional and remote Queenslanders.

"Additional public investments in regionally specific research and translational initiatives are vital to improving healthcare for regional Queenslanders.

"It's crucial that all cancer patients, no matter where they live, have the best possible prospects of detecting cancer early and surviving their diagnosis.”

Regional residents will benefit from an upgrade of CCQ's Herston lodge, which provides accommodation for people travelling to Brisbane for cancer treatment.

Breast Cancer Network Australia chief Christine Nolan said her organisation was investigating the gaps in cancer services and care across regional Australia.

"The experience of being diagnosed with breast cancer can differ greatly depending on where you live - and that shouldn't be the case,” Ms Nolan said.

"As a society we have come a long way in breast cancer research, treatment and support services but there is still more to be done.

"We know there are considerable variations across the country in terms of what services and treatment people are able to access.”

PA Research Foundation says about one in three men will be diagnosed with a cancer by the time they celebrate their 75th birthday.
PA Research Foundation says about one in three men will be diagnosed with a cancer by the time they celebrate their 75th birthday. Contributed

Death divides the genders

HEART disease and cancers are among the key reasons why more Fraser Coast men die than women and why our male residents don't live as long as females.

Analysis of five years of death data for Fraser Coast reveals 2539 men died during 2010-2014 compared to 2116 women.

Males, on average, died at 77 years old while women generally reached 83.

PA Research Foundation's Dr Sandro Porceddu said about one in three men would be diagnosed with a cancer by the time they celebrate their 75th birthday.

Dr Porceddu said with men smoking and drinking more and experiencing obesity at higher rates than women, the easiest way to reduce the life expectancy gap was as simple as changing lifestyle choices.

"Men need to get serious about managing their cancer risk because their risk is higher than women and their life expectancy is shorter,” the radiation oncologist said.

"Men need to reduce their smoking rates, aim for an ideal body weight and reduce their alcohol intake.”

As men are less likely to go to their GP than women, the PA Research Foundation is urging employers to give their male workers an afternoon off to have their health assessed.

"The idea here is that there are risk factors that are preventable, men are more likely to be impacted by those risk factors but they are reluctant to go to their GP,” Dr Porceddu said.

"It's the inherent issue of maleness. Men are generally workers who find it difficult to find time and who have the 'she'll be right attitude' approach to their health.

"We want to close the gap and most cancers are preventable by changing lifestyle factors and most cancers are curable if detected early, but the problem is getting men to go to see their GP.”

  • More info, visit www.menshealth.org.au.

Mary Lou Houston is battling cancer and her husband Dennis is a great support for her. She is also taking part in a special palliative care support service that may be rolled out across regional Australia.
Mary Lou Houston is battling cancer and her husband Dennis is a great support for her. She is also taking part in a special palliative care support service that may be rolled out across regional Australia. Sherele Moody

Health insurance giant trials palliative care program to make life better for chronically ill

PRIVATE health patients across our region are expected to benefit from a new palliative care program being tested in Brisbane.

Insurance giant Bupa has joined forces with St Vincent's Health Australia to offer in-home intensive specialist medical services for people who have chronic illnesses or are in the last few days of their lives.

As well as practitioner visits, a nurse can stay with the patient and their family overnight to ensure the patient remains comfortable at all times. If the two-year trial is successful, Bupa says it will "explore" opportunities to extend the service to customers in regional centres.

This means more of our region's residents will have the option of dying at home as their private hospital supports them and their families and carers though home visits from doctors, specialist nurses, occupational therapists, physiotherapists and counsellors.

If it is rolled out here, the program would also mean private palliative care patients could get direct access to a hospital bed instead of having to first present at an emergency department.

Ovarian cancer patient Mary Lou Houston said the in-home palliative care support was keeping her healthier and happier than she would be if she was hospitalised.

The 66-year-old mother and grandmother was given a five-year life expectancy in 2007.

Her body is finally caving in to the impacts of ongoing treatments, including irreversible damage to her kidneys and heart.

Mrs Houston spent 16 weeks in hospital last year.

"While we were in hospital my readings for my heart and kidneys weren't flash hot," she said.

"They asked me how I would feel if they called in the palliative care team.

"They said the team would help me a lot more than being in hospital."

Mrs Houston said she felt her physical and psychological well-being were much stronger thanks to the in-home support. .

She said it also meant and her husband Dennis was better able to care for her.

"The nurse and doctor come in and ask me how I'm going, they're always caring," she said.

"It's easier on me, it's easier on Dennis.

"It has helped me stay out of hospital," she said.

St Vincent's Private Hospital Brisbane chief Cheryle Royle said it made sense to offer at-home palliative care support was because it was cheaper than hospital admissions and much better for patients to be in their own surroundings.

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