Mum’s battle with breast cancer during COVID-19

Icon Writers / 11 Sep, 2020

Icon patient Kyra discusses her experience as first in SA to be treated with game-changing technology during COVID-19 pandemic

Kyra Fetherston never thought she would be diagnosed with breast cancer at just 39-years-old. As she was under the age of 40, she hadn’t yet received a breast screen and when she first found a lump in her left breast, she debated for a week or so on if it was worth getting checked out.

“It took me a while to say this isn’t right. There is so much out there on what to look for, but the one tell that made me open my eyes was puckering of the skin on my breast. I knew this was a sign of breast cancer.”

After receiving a mammogram and biopsy on Christmas Eve of 2019, Kyra’s new year took a turn for the worst when just a week and a half later she was told she had breast cancer.

“It wasn’t the best way to spend my Christmas and New Year. When I heard the news, I was pretty upset. All I could think was what would this mean for me and my family, both now and in the future, and if this is something I could have passed on to my kids through my genes.”

Kyra quickly received a lumpectomy on the 10th of January and went on to receive five months of chemotherapy at Mildura Base Hospital. A week into chemotherapy, on the day of her 40th birthday, COVID-19 was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization.

“The news made us very worried and we took COVID-19 seriously, although living in regional Victoria we figured it was still a long way off. The biggest question was should we keep our kids home from school? If the kids brought it home and gave it to me, that’s a big problem. From the middle of March to June we didn’t leave the house except for my treatment.”

Kyra and her family made the most of their time at home, which was a welcome distraction from the difficulties of chemotherapy treatment. As a secondary school teacher Kyra also enjoyed putting her teaching skills into action while home-schooling her young children.

After finishing chemotherapy in her home town of Mildura, Kyra became the first patient in South Australia to receive tattoo-less radiation therapy using advanced technology known as AlignRT, after travelling to Adelaide for her radiation therapy treatment in August. AlignRT provides high doses of radiation directly to the cancer with pinpoint precision through an unlimited number of reference points, which isn’t possible using traditional marks that are tattooed or marked using a pen.

“As I’m immunocompromised, the safest option for us was to travel to South Australia for treatment rather than the stress of going to Melbourne. I was surprised when I learned that I wouldn’t need to get permanent tattoos as part of my treatment. It meant there was one less thing for me to worry about, especially considering the pain and visibility involved with tattoos.”

“I would have needed to get four tattoos and one would have been visible on my chest. I’m glad not to have a visible reminder like that for special occasions and photos in the future.”

The technology is also able to deliver Deep Inspiration Breath Hold (DIBH) by monitoring the patient’s breathing position throughout treatment without the need for invasive equipment. DIBH is a technique used for left-sided breast cancer patients, which reduces the potential for any impact on the heart from radiation during treatment.

The process involves the patient holding their breath for short intervals during treatment, which allows the heart to move further away from the radiation.

Kyra says being able to receive DIBH during her treatment gave her peace of mind.

“My cancer was located directly above my heart in my left breast. Knowing that radiation therapy can affect surrounding tissue, I was glad that using DIBH meant I didn’t complicate anything else, especially since I don’t have any existing issues with my heart or lungs.”

“There is a screen with a coloured line on it which moves when you breathe and lets you know when to hold your breath. It gave me something to focus on and made the whole experience much easier.”

AlignRT’s sophisticated, non-invasive technology uses camera systems to analyse the patient’s breathing during DIBH and is linked to the radiation therapy machine, which won’t run unless patients are holding their breath correctly.

“If you do lose your breath, the radiation stops; there’s no need to worry. It’s really great to be treated with this advanced technology. Everyone I’ve met along the way has been incredibly helpful; I truly feel like I’m in the right place and am being looked after in the most amazing way.”

With her treatment ending this week, Kyra looks forward to getting home to her children who have been cared for by her in-laws and parents while she’s been away for treatment.

“We’ve been sad to be away from them but they’re doing wonderfully. We video call with them most nights which has helped a lot.”

She says the most difficult part of her journey so far has been worrying what the future might bring.

“You constantly think about if this is going to be over once treatment finishes or if the cancer is going to come back in a few years’ time. It’s changed my outlook on life, I really want to spend more time with family – which we haven’t done much of this year! The best advice I can give to someone is that if I can get through treatment, you can too. I found that some of the cancer support groups on social media really made a difference. You can ask a question and 10-20 people from across Australia who’ve been through the same experience will give you advice. It helped me feel like I wasn’t the only one.”

For now, like many others during the COVID-19 pandemic, Kyra is focused on cherishing time with loved ones and eagerly awaits life gradually returning to normal.

AlignRT is available at Icon Cancer Centre Windsor Gardens and Icon Cancer Centre Mulgrave.

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