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“Cancer will be sorry it ever met me”

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“I was shocked mostly because this was so out of the blue. I had no symptoms, and I didn’t have any lumps,” 48-year-old Rachel Evagelou says of her recent aggressive breast cancer diagnosis.

She’s my beloved friend and neighbour. But you might recognise her as former co-owner of Shop Handmade, which was located on City Walk Boulevard in Civic from 2010-2016.

Just by chance a few weeks ago, Rachel was sitting having a cup of tea and scrolling through Facebook. A friend of hers had posted about her own breast cancer diagnosis and also that of her young niece—a woman in her 20s. This friend was urging others to go and get breast screening.

“I thought I’m going to book that now. Because it’s something I’ve been meaning to do for ages. And I kept putting it off,” Rachel says.

Like any us who are diagnosed with cancer, it’s never something you expect.

Julie Nicols and Rachel in Shop Handmade.

“Because it was my first mammogram, they had advised me that they would probably get me back in for a second mammogram and that would give them a baseline. So, I was expecting the second call back to come back in.

“But when I got there [for the second screening], it was pretty clear things were looking concerning.

“They were concentrating on my left breast. They said, ‘We’re just checking to be sure, but it looks like there might be something there,’” Rachel recounts.

Author Ginger Gorman and Rachel Evagelou.

After a second mammogram, Rachel then had an ultrasound followed by a biopsy.

“I was looking at the screen and you could clearly see that there was something that she [the technician] was concerned about.

“She started getting textas out and marking my breasts and she got rulers out and she was taking measurements,” Rachel recalls. The technician sent the scans off to a doctor who ordered a biopsy: “I definitely had the feeling at that point something was wrong.”

Rachel was given a doctor’s appointment for Monday, October 12 and advised to bring a support person. Despite her fears, Rach was still hoping the dense lumps in her breast might be benign. She decided “not to overthink it.”

“I didn’t want to alarm people. I just thought: ‘Well, until I know what the result is, I’m just going to keep a lid on it. I’m not going to look at Captain Google.’”

“I was also just grateful that we have these services freely available to us and that I can have this looked at,” she adds.

During her third appointment at BreastScreen ACT, Rachel was given an initial diagnosis of stage three aggressive cancer and told she’d be operated on within 30 days. DCIS, which are cancer cells inside the duct, and invasive ductal carcinoma, which are cancer cells that have spread outside the duct.

“They took me to a very nice room and as soon as that door opened and I saw the comfortable couch with tissues on the table, I just knew.”

Rachel says she’s grateful that services such as Breast Screen ACT are freely available.

BreastScreen ACT is part of the national BreastScreen Australia program, which aims to reduce illness and death from breast cancer using screening mammography for early detection of unsuspected breast cancer in women.

Australian women aged 40 and over are eligible for free mammograms with BreastScreen Australia. (However, younger women who are concerned or have symptoms should see their GP immediately.)

A few days after Rachel was given the diagnosis, she did something most of us would never dream of (I can confidently say this as a cancer survivor myself!)—she wrote a heartfelt Facebook post herself telling her story and urging her friends to get health checks, regardless of age or gender. The post was shared dozens of times, resulting in a radio interview and an influx of bookings to BreastScreen ACT.

Christy Fox, Director BreastScreen ACT, confirmed the increase in bookings: “The sharing of personal stories raises awareness of the prevalence of breast cancer and informs women of this free service available for early detection. We are very grateful to Rachel and to everyone who shares their personal stories for being courageous. It is very powerful and influencing.”

“Nine out of 10 women [diagnosed with the disease] don’t have a history of breast cancer in their family therefore screening mammograms are very important for everyone,” Christy added.

According to data provided by Canberra Health Services, BreastScreen ACT screens around 19,500 women per year, with this number increasing every year with the city’s population. Breast cancer is detected in approximately 1% of women by BreastScreen ACT.

For her part, Rachel has nothing but praise for the way BreastScreen ACT staff assisted her in a caring but straightforward way: “They are just so gorgeous, and they’re really reassuring and fabulous.”

A saving grace has been Rach’s strong support community. She describes us her “Warrior Tribe.” On the day of her diagnosis we—because I’m in this tribe—dropped everything late in the afternoon to drink wine, laugh and cry with her.

Rachel’s Warrior Tribe.

One member of the group, Tijana, organised a support dinner and we also have a fun but encouraging Facebook chat group called Badass Bitches.

For this friendship circle, Rachel is eternally grateful: “Because there are so many emotions. And there’s so many unknowns, and there’s so much fear, you just need all the support you can get.”

Although Rach hasn’t seen a surgeon yet and therefore doesn’t have her full treatment plan, she believes the cancer has been caught early and is treatable. She expects to have a mastectomy, followed by chemotherapy and radiation.

“Deep in my heart I feel that I am going to be okay,” Rachel tells me, “I have a very full and rich life, wonderful friends and incredible family. I have two beautiful children and a husband who I love and adore. And, you know, there is so much that I haven’t done that I still want to do. I’m not ready [to die].

Rachel’s support crew.

To people who are reticent about getting a mammogram, Rachel says: “I think getting a late diagnosis or being diagnosed with terminal cancer is a whole lot more uncomfortable than a mammogram.

“Early detection is key. It’s uncomfortable for half an hour of your life, but it could save your life. Put your big girl panties on and suck it up,” she says.

Postscript: Rachel has now seen a surgeon, who has confirmed that this particularly aggressive form of cancer likely started growing just 8-12 weeks ago, further cementing her desire to urge women to get checked regularly and early, even with no symptoms.

BreastScreen ACT screens women at the Phillip, City and Belconnen community health centres.

Currently the wait time in the ACT from booking your appointment to having a mammogram is 3.5 weeks, although it may be earlier if there has been a cancellation.

 To make a booking call 13 20 50.

 Feature image: Ginger Gorman

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