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Almost one year on from her breast cancer diagnosis, Carmen Brenssell shares her story with Ruby Heyward.

Get checked.

That’s the moral of Carmen Brenssell’s story.

Last year, Mrs Brenssell was diagnosed with human epideral growth factor receptor 2 (HER-2) breast cancer.

She received the diagnosis after going for her first mammogram, which she had booked after her sister had one.

Women first become eligible for free biennial screenings at age 45. Mrs Brenssell had hers at 48, and the timing may very well have saved her life, she said

She had been scheduled for a mammogram in April 2020, but it was pushed back to October because of Covid-19.

“If I had gone in earlier they might not have caught anything.”

As standard practice, there were three people in the room when she received her diagnosis: a doctor delivering the news, someone holding her hand, and a nurse taking notes to send to her later.

The last was important – every word spoken after the initial diagnosis fell on deaf ears once the shock kicked in, she said.

“It was happening so fast, you just got on the train and it wasn’t stopping.”

Mrs Brenssell was called “the problem child” – she had two masses and swollen lymph nodes all in one breast, and she needed a combination of chemotherapy and radiation, and surgery.

Her first chemotherapy treatment was on December 23, 2020.

“That was a good Christmas present,” she said.

She started with the “hard-core, horrible, s… stuff”, that would knock her out for the first two weeks – leaving only a small window of normality before the next round.

But it was the steriods that were the “real killer”, she said.

Now, she has treatment once every three weeks at Oamaru Hospital.

She was surprised by how many familiar faces showed up at the oncology ward, and said she quickly learned not to ask about those who stopped showing up, as the answer was usually tragic.

But she did not let the idea of dying pop into her head. In fact, she asked her doctor upfront if she was going to survive, and believed it when he said he would cure her.

She was spared the process of shaving her hair, as it fell out on its own five weeks into chemotherapy.

“It feels like you lose your identity.”

The next step was surgery, and in May, she had a mastectomy, and 10 lymph nodes were surgically removed.

Two months later, she underwent cancer-zapping and skin-burning radiation every day for three weeks. During the second week, her father had a heart attack.

Luckily they were both in Dunedin Hospital, she said.

“It’s just been the year from hell.”

While she could handle the treatment, it was difficult for those “looking in” as they felt helpless.

“They can’t do anything.”

Mrs Brenssell’s good friend, Josey Wallace, was a “power of strength” for her, taking her for lunch after every chemotherapy session and driving her to radiation appointments.

“She was always there checking up on me and keeping the good vibes up.”

Her husband, Wayne Brenssell, said his wife’s positivity made a world of difference to the family.

“It’s happening, you just have to get on with it,” she said.

“You just have to keep positive.”

The birth of her grandson Freddy Mac Jopson, certainly helped with that.

As did coaching rowing and netball.

“I was lucky I had those wee milestones to look forward to.”

Over the summer, she coached young rowers at the Oamaru Rowing Club, and in winter, she was coaching the premier Maheno netball team

Mrs Brenssell has been involved with Maheno Netball for the past 10 years, after a 15-year hiatus of living in East Otago – before then she played for Maheno since she was a schoolgirl.

The netball team had also been a great support network for her, players coming to visit her, and games and practices kept her “chugging along.”

Mrs Brenssell has now switched to herceptin chemotherapy treatment, which did not “knock her around” as much.

She was looking forward to her final chemotherapy session on January 27, 2022.

While some GPs register their patients for breast-screening checks, Mrs Brenssell said she was surprised to discover for the most part it was the responsibility of the individual.

“There’s no letter or anything.”

It frustrated Mrs Brenssell when women chose not to get checked, whether they were too scared or inconvenienced.

“It’s not a horrifying experience.”

Her scan was vital in detecting the cancer, as she could not feel any lumps in her breasts.

“If they catch it early, its usually curable.”

She urged eligible women to register for the free biennial mammograms online at timetoscreen.nz – it could be “life-saving”, she said.

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and the Breast Cancer Foundation’s Pink Ribbon street appeal, which raises funds for breast cancer education, research, advocacy and patient support, will be held on October 29-30.

Breast cancer in New Zealand

  • More than 650 women die from the disease every year, 80% of whom are over 50
  • 70-75% of women diagnosed are over 50
  • Although rare, about 25 men are diagnosed every year
  • Women aged 45 to 69 are eligible for two-yearly mammograms
  • Source: Breast Cancer Foundation NZ