Auckland photographer Nick Marsh has produced a beautiful portrait series of Sweet Louise members. Below are some of their insights into living life with incurable breast cancer. Thank you to Nick for his time, energy and compassion in creating this series. Thank you to the members for sharing their stories and thank you, our supporters, as we couldn’t do any of this without you.
Lyn was one stage away from earning her black belt in karate when she found out she had primary breast cancer.
“I was teaching a class and all of a sudden my chest area felt really sore. When one of my students came in to kick me, I felt a lump.”
Lyn underwent treatment, and eventually adjusted to a ‘new normal’. She had to swap karate and marathons for walking, but she was OK. However, seven years after her primary diagnosis everything changed again.
“One hot day in summer I was in my kitchen cutting watermelon. All of a sudden, I felt a surging pain run through my arm. I felt like I was having a seizure or stroke. I ran next door to my friend’s place, the butcher’s knife still in my hand, watermelon juice running down my arm. When my friend came to the door, I opened my mouth to speak but lost all ability to talk. Next thing I know I’m in the ambulance and a few days later I’ve been told the breast cancer is back, it has metastasized and has spread to my brain.”
Two years, a brain operation and 59 cycles of treatment later, Lyn takes every day as they come.
“Every day above ground is a bonus,” she says.
“The Sweet Louise group is so warm and generous, I have loved making new friends and being with those in the same situation as me.”
When Raewyn was diagnosed with incurable breast cancer in 2014 she started to make a bucket list.
“I knew my diagnosis wasn’t a death sentence, but I also knew I wouldn’t be here for a long time”.
The first item on her list was a horseback safari in Africa, which, as a trained zoologist and animal lover, was a dream come true. A trip to Europe followed and last year Raewyn and her sister Kim went to Antarctica.
“I have worked in the Corrections Department as a kitchen team leader for 19 years. These trips are my way to break out of my routine, to reinvigorate my life, and make the most of it while I still can”.
Back in her everyday life, Raewyn is dealing with the physical and mental exhaustion of cancer.
“Physically, I am tired and in constant pain. Mentally, I am always playing down how hard this illness is. No one wants to see the gritty side of cancer. It is upsetting. So here I am, trying to juggle my real life with one people want to hear about”.
“That’s why Sweet Louise is an essential resource to people going through incurable breast cancer. It means there is someone at the end of the phone, there is a group of people out there that know what you are going through, there is information to access, there are member meetings and there are vouchers to help with practical support.”
In 2014, seven years after battling primary breast cancer, Gaylene, who has been a postie in Auckland her whole working life, started dropping the mail on her morning postal runs.
“I couldn’t hold the mail properly and I noticed my arm started swelling. A pain developed in my shoulder, and I could feel it move across my back. It felt like a worm that was slowly but surely creeping across my body, trying to get into my organs”.
Gaylene had a sinking feeling the cancer was back.
“I knew it had returned but I didn’t know the extent of how bad it was and what having secondary breast cancer actually meant. In the beginning I just thought it would be treated like my primary breast cancer and I’d go back to my normal life eventually”.
Now Gaylene lives the reality of her incurable diagnosis. She is often exhausted and in pain. Yet you will only ever see her putting on a brave face.
“People have no idea that some of us have incurable breast cancer because we try and get back to the people we were before. We are strong fighters and often don’t show how hard it is”.
“The people who support Sweet Louise don’t know how much they are helping us. It is amazing; they give their time and money so generously. Thank you all so very much. You give us the space to breathe and find strength”.
Lynda lived in the UK for 12 years until, in 1989, she felt like her body was telling her to come home.
“My life was in the UK. My husband was there, my job, my friends. But I couldn’t shake the feeling, so my husband and I packed our bags and made our way home”.
That ‘feeling’ was stage three breast cancer. Lynda was diagnosed a few days after Christmas the first year she was back. She was 37 years old.
“I was totally shocked. At the time, my parents were away, the doctors were on holiday, and I wasn’t yet 40. There was a lot less public knowledge about breast cancer at the time”.
Fast forward 18 years, time in New Zealand, a move to Australia, and her cancer returned. This time it was incurable.
“Eighteen years had passed since my first diagnosis. Apart from feeling tired a lot, I was doing OK. I couldn’t believe it when the results came back. I went into a panic”.
Lynda is now beating the odds. She has lived with her incurable breast cancer for ten years.
“With the help of Sweet Louise I have found a way to navigate this cancer and live with it as best I can. Of course it has taken a huge emotional and financial toll, but I am here, and I am coping.”
“The friendships I have created at Sweet Louise are invaluable. As members, we understand and support each other. We give each other hope”.