Doctors have told Monique Bareham that she is cancer-free. But she’ll never really be free of cancer.
Like so many cancer survivors, the effects of the disease and the years of treatment continue to impact her each day – physically, mentally, financially and on employment and relationships.
At 36, Monique led a busy life, was dedicated to her career, and had plans for a family.
But Monique says it all came to a “grinding halt” when she found a lump in her breast.
“The days went from being normal to being aboard the cancer train,” Monique, now 45, says.
There were multiple surgeries, chemotherapy, radiotherapy, and courses of hormone and other drug therapies.
She also developed breast cancer related lymphoedema which has permanently left her with constant, heavy and painful swelling in her right arm, and a susceptible immune system.
The intensity of the treatment meant she wasn’t able to work for some time – when she did, it was for short periods before she was forced to retire due to ill health.
“Fortunately I was cured of cancer,” Monique says.
“But I remember getting to the five-year mark of being cancer free - which is generally a milestone to be celebrated – and to be honest it was probably the lowest point of my life because I looked at my life and it had just turned completely upside down.
“There was the end of my career which had huge financial implications, there were the physical and emotional aspects, I also lost my fertility and wasn’t able to have children, and on a personal level my relationship also failed.
“Effectively it was every single aspect of my life.
“I’d completely lost my sense of self and purpose, and went through a period of grief, mourning, depression and anxiety.
“There also weren’t really any referral pathways for lymphoedema here in South Australia and in a way I was left to deal with it.”
To her credit, Monique has turned her experience into a new purpose, dedicating her life to helping other survivors.
She is the president of the Lymphoedema Support Group of South Australia and a consumer adviser for the Australasian Lymphology Association. She’s also participated in Cancer Voices projects, and frequently presents a consumer perspective on cancer survivorship.
“I now work to raise awareness of cancer related lymphoedema, fertility issues, and returning to work to try and lessen the trauma for the people who have come after me,” she says.
“It’s taken time but I’ve built the strength and this has become my new purpose.”
The Flinders Centre for Innovation in Cancer has recognised challenges to being a cancer survivor and is improving care to benefit many of the nearly 70,000 cancer survivors in South Australia.
This work includes a survivorship plan for patients which has been piloted at several hospitals including Flinders, as well as research into side effects of cancer treatment, returning to work and financial pressures.
To help Flinders Foundation support cancer survivorship work, make a donation at here or call (08) 8204 5216.