Mum's cancer warning: 'Some GPs may have dismissed me because I was young'

Nayana and her family during her treatment.
Nayana and her family during her treatment.  Photo: Supplied

This Mother's Day will be a particularly special one for 28-year-old mum of two Nayana Saad, who is celebrating the end of her treatment for triple negative breast cancer.

Nayana is taking part in the Mother's Day Classic on Sunday 8 May, joining her breast care nurse and a team of other mothers -along with their partners, family and friends - to raise money for breast cancer research.

And she also wants to raise awareness of the fact that around 800 young women are diagnosed with breast cancer in Australia every year. "That's two per day," Nayana says. "And I was one of those two."

Before and after treatment: the difference a few months can make.
Before and after treatment: the difference a few months can make.  Photo: Supplied

According to the 2014 National Breast Cancer Foundation report, because the incidence of breast cancer in the 20s and 30s is low, "when it does occur, it takes everyone by surprise". More young women die from their disease compared with older women. They also have a higher rate of recurrence and spread to other parts of the body. 

The report also states that "while uncommon, pregnant women, and mothers who are breastfeeding can be diagnosed with breast cancer too".

That was the reality facing Nayana, who was breastfeeding her six-month-old son, and also a mum to a toddler, when she discovered a lump. "It wasn't painful, it was like a little marble. By the second week though, you could definitely feel it."

Nayana, however, thought it was simply a blocked milk duct.

Two weeks later, the young mum went to see her GP because her baby and two-year-old daughter were both sick. Almost as an afterthought, Nayana mentioned the lump.

She was sent for an ultrasound and then, because the results were inconclusive, a biopsy.

Advertisement

That's when Nayana received the news that very quickly turned her world - and that of her husband Mark - upside down.

"It's cancerous, darling," her GP said.

Nayana's doctor also explained that the growth rate was greater than 90 per cent and therefore extremely aggressive.

Nayana on her last day of treatment.
Nayana on her last day of treatment.  Photo: Supplied

Despite receiving the life-changing diagnosis, Nayana remembers being on autopilot. "I still had the kids. I was on maternity leave." Busy with nappy changes and bath times, one question remained on her mind: "Will I be dead in six months?"

What followed were three different surgeries beginning with a lumpectomy, six months of chemotherapy, and six weeks of daily radiation. Thankfully, the cancer was contained to her right breast. "When I heard it was treatable, that I was going to live, everything else went in one ear and out the other."

Nayana says that one of the biggest surprises about chemotherapy was the weight gain. "The Hollywood image is that you're really thin, but they give you all these steroids to manage the nausea and vomiting" - but the steroids, she explains, causes weight gain, hunger and sleeplessness.

Nayana describes feeling like a "walking pharmacy" due to taking so many different pills. "My body didn't know whether it was coming or going. It was just existing and trying to repair damage from chemo and radiation."

Yet another challenge was losing her hair. "I'll never forget the feeling of washing my hair and finding it all over my hands. I told Mark, 'I need you to shave it off'. And he did. No questions asked. He got the shaver ready and it was done. We did it gradually. Number two, and then zero a few days later. Sometimes I think it was harder for those around me than me. I remember Mark telling me it was like getting ready for battle - and boy, was I ready."

The couple also prepared their two-year-old girl for the challenges ahead. "I told her, 'Mummy is sick. Mummy has sore boobies. Mummy is going to lose her hair and have hair like Daddy's. But it's okay because it's going to grow back."

Nayana initially chose to wear turbans and head scarves to hide her hair loss. "But it turns out people don't look up enough from their phones to notice it anyway," she says. "Don't be afraid to rock your bald head!"

Look Good Feel Better, a national community service program designed to help women manage the appearance-related side effects of chemotherapy and radiation, also prepared Nayana for what was to come.

The young mum soon realised: "I'm a woman, no matter what my hair looks like. I could have had a mastectomy and I'd still be a woman. My hair doesn't define me. My eyelashes don't define me."

"Chemo brain" was yet another unexpected side effect. "They say it's like being in a fog," she says. As such, one piece of advice Nayana would offer other women is: "take someone with you to appointments because you won't remember everything".

Nayana also describes coming to terms with what they call "canxiety", the fear of the cancer coming back. "I went through the phase of waking up and thinking 'What if there's another lump?' I know many women have trouble getting out of that frame of mind."

While Nayana met many other mums during her treatment, no one else had children as young as her own. "I know people feel sorry for me having to go through this with the kids. But I don't. If I hadn't been through pregnancy I would have been miserable though the chemo. But it was just like morning sickness. Been there, done that."

Nayana highlights that caring for the kids meant that she didn't have time to feel sorry for herself or to lie in bed and just cry. "They still needed dinner and baths. They still needed a mum. And Mum was still here. Mum was still alive."

Nayana says her husband Mark - the couple have been together since they were both 15 - has been unwavering in his love and commitment. "Mark took it all in his stride. He was there twirling with my daughter in her ballet classes. He literally stepped up!"

Her parents were also an invaluable support: "There were days I couldn't get out of bed and they made sure they were there for my kids with non-stop support and love. I was blessed to be able to rely on them and my children have such a wonderful relationship with them as a result."

Going forward, Nayana will need a yearly mammogram, along with monthly breast checks. Right now, though, it's all about the little things. "I can put mascara on. My eyebrows and eyelashes are back."

She's also looking forward to returning to work over the next few months and finding her "new normal." And, most importantly, "being healthy for the kids, being able to play with them, and watching them grow."

Nayana stresses the need for women to know their bodies. "Go to your doctor and argue for yourself. Some GPs may have dismissed me because I was only 28 - but do your breast checks and know what's normal for you. If you're checking every month you're on top of it.

"I've met women in their early 20s and late teens with breast cancer. It doesn't matter how young you are.

"It's amazing how resilient we are when we have to be," she says. "I feel like Superwoman sometimes."

Details of the Mother's Day classic, including event and fundraising information can be found at mothersdayclassic.com.au

For more information on breast cancer in young women, visit 800youngwomen.org.au.