Dinner With a Friend Led Elise to Being Diagnosed with Triple Negative Breast Cancer
On the eve of her 33rd birthday in 2019, Elise Sproll had everything in order. She was smashing her career, in a happy place with her relationships and was, overall, enjoying life. That was until she came home from dinner with her friend, where the topic of breast checks and self-examinations came up. It hung on Elise’s mind.
“I went home that night, and because my friend was getting a lump looked at, I realised it had been a little while since I had done it. So, I went home and felt my boobs and I had that horrible moment where I felt something,” she shares openly with me. She’s sitting at her desk, eating lunch in between work meetings.
What Elise felt upon self-examination, was a lump that will be diagnosed as Stage 2, Grade 3, Triple Negative Breast Cancer.
“I felt immediately sick,” she says honestly. “It was horrible.”
It’s a diagnosis that no one wants for a 33rd birthday present, yet more and more women south of 50 are being welcomed into the breast cancer club, regardless of their age and their health.
In Australia, over 15,000 women are diagnosed with breast cancer every year. Of those cases, 15 per cent will have a Triple Negative Breast Cancer status.
Elise describes herself before the diagnosis as someone who is the epitome of fitness and drive — she ran marathons, climbed mountains, did scuba diving. She was kicking goals at work and, overall, was genuinely fulfilled.
And yet, despite her active lifestyle and outlook on life, she still got cancer.
“It was a rollercoaster. It was ‘you’ve got breast cancer’. Then, it was ‘you’ve got Triple Negative Breast Cancer and we’ll need to start chemotherapy as soon as possible’,” she says, out of breath.
Even though it was almost three years ago, Elise remembers the initial shock like it was yesterday.
“I remember talking with my radiologist on the Monday [who told me I had cancer] and she said I’m booking you in at 9am tomorrow to discuss freezing your eggs and whether you can do IVF, and the next day you’ll meet your oncologist to discuss when chemotherapy starts,” she says.
Things move quickly when you’ve got Triple Negative Breast Cancer. It’s an aggressive cancer that grows at an alarming rate and requires treatment to start as soon as possible to stop metastasis.
“I had to make a decision about my fertility before meeting my oncologist and that… that was a lot. Children weren’t on my radar. I was in a really good place and kids were just not on my mind,” she states.
Elise’s predicament is one that many young women who are diagnosed with any type of cancer find themselves in — thinking of fertility despite it having previously been way down on life’s list. Enter a cancer diagnosis, and still, children aren’t necessarily the first thing you think about.
“You just think about staying alive,” Elise says honestly.
Fertility isn’t only a decision that has to be made immediately when faced with an aggressive cancer, it’s also a financial one many patients must consider before even starting treatment.
“I didn’t feel informed. I didn’t know specifically about Triple Negative, either. All I knew about breast cancer was that it happened to a lot of women when they’re older.
“And then they told me that chemo may make you infertile and may put you into early menopause. It was information overload. I spoke with my oncologist, and she told me ‘I’m willing to wait three weeks, not four weeks’ so in the scheme of things, it was like a sliding doors moment. Like, if I didn’t find it sooner, what would have happened?”
When it was time to put together a treatment plan, Elise’s initial understanding of having surgery first was incorrect.
“I thought it was the first thing to do, you know, to cut it out, but in the case of Triple Negative, it’s not,” she says.
Elise’s confusion and being caught off guard when being told chemotherapy comes first, is common where Triple Negative Breast Cancer is concerned. Each type of breast cancer has its own treatment plan and is dependent upon the stage and grade of the cancer. For Elise, her treatment schedule was set out to be chemotherapy, surgery, and radiotherapy (pending a complete response). If there wasn’t a complete response, it was more chemotherapy.
“I was in shock, but then I thought ‘okay, well, breast cancer is one of the better cancers to have because it has a great prognosis compared to many other cancers’. But it wasn’t until months later, did it really sink in what Triple Negative meant and how likely it was to reoccur,” she states.
When it comes to Triple Negative breast cancer, the truth is, is that it is more aggressive than other breast cancer subtypes and is more likely to spread to other parts of the body faster. Unfortunately, it is also the most difficult type of breast cancer to treat.
If the cancer does spread, the survival outlook falls dramatically from 85 per cent to as low as 25 per cent.
“I started chemo straight away and soon found out I had partial response to it — meaning it should have been shrinking but it wasn’t. So then, it was surgery to remove the tumour and get clear margins, which they did and that was good.
“The next thing I had was radiation and then more chemo and then after all that, I landed in a bucket of no evidence of disease and… yeah,” she trails off, amazement and reflection evident in her tone.
Elise went through eleven months of chemotherapy, a lumpectomy and 28 rounds of radiation to achieve the outcome so many women hope for, all at the age of 33. She chose not to have a double mastectomy because her doctors informed her that a relapse can occur anywhere in the body.
“I hope it doesn’t come back,” she says strongly, in between bites of her lunch.
But the thing is with Triple Negative, is that it can come back.
Elise is aware of this but is determined not to focus on that right now. She’s on a clinical trial that is going well and is finally starting to feel a sense of normality. She isn’t the type of person to waste a worry about the ‘what if’ — it’s all about looking forward. Just because the cancer isn’t evident, it’s the aftermath where some of the hardest work has to be done.
“I don’t want to say it [cancer] gave me purpose because that’s not the right expression, but I went through a rollercoaster of learning and eventually, I got to a point where I didn’t want to think of ‘what could have been’ because I couldn’t change the past.
“You just realise that maybe you weren’t on the right path and what ended up happening was me having an awakening and finding this enormous connection with my body, mind and soul and I feel like I’m on my way to doing what I’m meant to be doing.”
For Elise, that’s studying nutrition, respecting her body, and even leaning into things like energy healing.
“I want to take as much control as I can and heal from it as much as I can.”
I ask her if she believes in fate, because really, everything has stemmed from that dinner she had with her friend.
“Absolutely,” she smiles.
“I think about that moment a lot. Like I said, I checked, but never the way I checked that night. It was different and I’m so glad that I did. It changed the course of my life.”