Brave mum Ana plays the match of her life against breast cancer -and is winning, thanks to team work, attitude and the support of her key players.
Last September, 34-year-old Ana Falconer was an active busy working mum of two-year-old Ollie. She had a job at the Estee Lauder counter in the Life Pharmacy in Hamilton’s Chartwell. Her husband, Josh, was playing rugby for Bay Of Plenty, home again after nine years playing professionally in Italy. They had just completed some major renovations on their riverside home. Life was good. Things were going according to plan. But that’s the thing with plans –sometimes life throws you a curveball.
In Ana’s case, it was less a ball, more a large marble. At least, that’s what the lump she discovered in her left breast while having a shower one morning felt like. Ana remembers her initial reaction: “I rang my sister and she said ‘I’m coming around’. She felt it and said I needed to make an appointment straight away”. It was only a couple of weeks from that first GP visit to having an ultrasound, mammogram and biopsy. The biopsy itself was a Wednesday, and Ana and Josh had to wait until the following Monday for the results. They were a rough few days –“like riding a rollercoaster” –Ana says. Their specialist, Dr Ian Campbell, broke the news. Josh remembers him saying “These are probably not the words you want to hear, it’s Stage 3”.
It was hard to comprehend what Stage 3 meant. They knew it was definitely worse than Stage 1 or 2, and scarily close to Stage 4. What it meant, in reality, was a diagnosis of triple-negative breast cancer. It’s a cancer that doesn’t respond to medication, so the options were for Ana to have a mastectomy, chemotherapy and then radiation.
Time and again you’ll hear people who have been through a similar experience say the one thing that blew them away was the support they received. This is no different for Ana and Josh. The couple both have parents living in Hamilton, so little Ollie was well taken care of with regular sleepovers at his grandparents while Ana was unwell during her treatment. They make particular mention of Ollie’s teachers at daycare, and Ana and Josh's respective employers and colleagues. Shortly after Josh asked for time off to care for Ana, his coach, Kevin Schuler, and BOP Rugby CEO, Mike Rogers, organised for a gift box to be delivered with toys for Ollie and natural health and beauty products for Ana. A couple of weeks later his teammates made a very public display of solidarity by wearing pink shoelaces during a game, a sign of support during Breast Cancer Month.
All the support was heart-warming, but not always easy to accept. Ana found it particularly challenging at times, “I felt like a burden because everyone had to stop to help me”, she says. But, in general, that support was life-changing and Ana says “it now inspires me to be a better person”.
The diagnosis also meant massive upheaval for Josh, who abandoned his professional rugby career well before he would have liked to quit. But, in part due to the support of his Bay Of Plenty club, and also because of the financial security that his playing years in Italy gave them, he has been able to take this year away from work to focus on his family. It’s a fortunate position the couple are both grateful for. An unexpected bonus of his year off work is the valuable time Josh has spent with Ollie, time he may have missed out on otherwise. The exterior of the house is also looking better for the situation, with Josh spending many hours painting –a task which he says was remarkably therapeutic.
Together since the age of 23, the couple have taken on Ana’s cancer as a team. They make a concerted effort to find something to laugh about, even in the dark moments. Like when chemo caused Ana to lose her hair, the side-effect she was most dreading. Her hair was her pride and joy, so she cut it short before the chemotherapy. But when clumps started coming out in her hands, she gave Josh the clippers. “I had had a couple of beers” Josh laughs, “so I shaved a ‘J’ for Josh on the back of her head.”
Keeping it real
Explaining cancer to Ollie has been difficult. Josh and Ana don’t want to expose him to her illness more than necessary. He knows what he needs to know –that, for instance, there are days he needs to go with his grandparents because “Mummy’s sore is sore”. Ana says it was hard not being able to run around with her boy the way she’d like.
“The cancer has changed my view of motherhood in the sense that we are so blessed to have Ollie in our lives. I don’t worry about all the little things anymore, I just value each and every moment with my boy. I used to be in such a mad rush and not really taking it all in."
“I am not sure I am able to have any more children. Some women go on to have more children, but I think Ollie is our little one and only. We always had dreams of having two children, but Ollie is our little miracle.”
They often head to the park over the road, to look at the birds in the aviary and so Ollie can play his favourite game –running through the tunnel. Then there are their two dogs, Lily and Gino, or, as they’re affectionately known, ‘The Italian Mafia’. They were dogs the family rescued from shelters when they were in Italy.
Ana says she isn’t one to get into yoga or meditation or other alternative therapies. Diet is one thing she has changed, cutting out all refined sugar, which is a fuel for cancer cells, and trying to eat as organically as possible. Ana has found peace when she’s needed to by getting out in nature and walking the dogs. Impressively, while in the middle of her chemotherapy sessions, she even walked up the Hakarimata ranges near Ngaruawahia. It took her a while longer, and quite a bit of bad language, but she made it. “I was just so awful to Josh, but when I got to the top, I felt really good –I was elated and energised.”
She says the most surprising thing about this experience has been discovering just how strong she really is –not just physically, but also mentally.
Now, a year after the diagnosis that changed everything, Ana wants to share her story to help other young women. She wants them to realise that they too can be at risk, and above all else, to 'trust your instincts'. Ana says the first sign that something was wrong was probably about four months before she found the lump. “I started feeling really tired, losing weight, and I had a nagging pain in my left shoulder blade. I put it all down to working full time, running around after Ollie and picking him up with my left arm.”
This is her advice: “Slow down, take a breath, listen to your body. Take note of any changes and push for your right to get the medical advice you deserve. Don’t be scared. Mammograms are not that bad!”.
Both Josh and Ana say that in the last month they’ve started to come out of the cancer fog, and life has been returning to normal. They’re both looking forward to starting work again, and putting this year behind them. If triple-negative breast cancer is going to recur, the chances are it’ll do so in the first two years after treatment, so Ana will continue with monthly visits to the oncologist and regular scans, and enjoying the little moments with her supportive husband, little Ollie, and the canine ‘Italian Mafia’.
Photography: Sam Mothersole, sammothersole.co.nz