Know your normal: surviving breast cancer

Breast awareness saved Vivian Gubb’s life, and potentially her sisters’ as well. her message could save other women: know your normal. 🎗️🎗️

Vivian Gubb was only 29 when she was diagnosed in 2015, just after her first wedding anniversary. Ironically she’d spent the previous few months nursing her sick grandfather. Before her grandfather’s illness, Viv used to check her breasts regularly, as her aunt had had breast cancer in her forties. Viv found the lump after her grandfather had gone into care.

“It was more of a ridge”, she says, “and it was really hard to feel, but somehow I managed to. Then I had to help my GP find it too.” Her GP sent Viv to a specialist. Of course, most lumps aren’t breast cancer, and that’s what Viv and her husband Clinton were counting on throughout the ultrasound and biopsy that followed. “The surgeon said it didn’t look like a tumour, but she wanted to check it out, just to be safe.” A few days later, Viv got a call. “They didn’t tell me on the phone, but the way the nurse talked about ‘fitting me in’ as soon as possible … I could tell it was bad news.”

Viv had triple negative breast cancer, an aggressive form of the disease which often affects younger women. It also commonly affects women with the BRCA 1 gene mutation, so her DNA was sent for testing. If the test came back positive, she’d need more aggressive treatment – and her sisters would potentially also be at high risk for breast cancer.

A cancer diagnosis is never good timing. Viv and Clinton had just moved to rural Clevedon, away from their family and friends, and Clinton needed to abandon the degree he’d just started. They’d also been trying to conceive for six months, and an urgent IVF cycle was now necessary to preserve embryos, hopefully allowing them to fulfill their dream of having a family, even if the chemo permanently damaged Viv’s fertility.

The initial surgery to remove the lump went well, but Viv had a severe toxic response to chemotherapy. “I vomited for 12 hours straight”, she said. “Then there was severe kidney pain.” The injection she’d been given to boost immunity locked her joints and caused bone pain that even morphine couldn’t alleviate. Viv’s second chemo cycle, with a reduced dose of the drugs, went better. She felt pleased with the way she was coping. Then came the
results of her genetic test. She had the BRCA 1 gene mutation, which gave her an 85% chance of developing breast cancer in her lifetime. So Vivian underwent a double mastectomy, to minimise the chance of a cancer growing in her other breast.

As for Viv’s sisters, her twin also tested positive for the BRCA 1 gene mutation, and had an elective double mastectomy as a preventative measure. Her next sister came back negative, but her youngest sister was only 13 and, due to regulations based on the nature of the life-changing news, can’t get tested until she’s 18.

When Viv was diagnosed, her friends began checking their breasts. “Five friends, three lumps, one was cancer”, Viv recalls, the cancerous lump being her own. Lumps are fairly common amongst young women. Nine out of 10 lumps aren’t cancer, but Viv is keen to spread the word about regular checking as she truly believes it will save many lives. “I am literally only alive now, and have a high chance of survival, because I knew my own breasts.”


🎗️  ‘Know your Normal’ is Breast Cancer Foundation NZ’s message this October.

🎗️  Touch, look and check (with your doctor). Lumps can be a sign, but there are other signs too:

🎗️  Changes in the skin such as redness, a dimple, dent, or an orange-peel look 

🎗️  Changes in the size or shape of one breast

🎗️  A nipple discharge

🎗️  A turned-in nipple

🎗️  An unusual pain in your breast

🎗️  A section of the breast that looks or feels different eg. the surface of the breast feels harder or thicker

🎗️  Now is the time to set yourself up for a lifetime of good habits: moderate your alcohol intake, have a healthy BMI and exercise regularly.

Vivian and Clinton’s family dreams came true. Baby Blake is eight months old. He’s a happy, bonny boy whose parents are quite rightly besotted. See photo at top.



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