The corridor to the waiting room looks like any other in any hospital you might find yourself in. Bright lights, trolleys, smooth floors, the smell of disinfectant. As you turn the corner the chairs are the same as any medical waiting room, functional. You aren’t here for a long time, it’s a transitional space. But the atmosphere in this particular waiting room is different. Flowers and cards on the receptionist’s counter, magazines and knitting on the coffee table, a beautiful quilt on the wall and laughter fills the corner room. This is a happy space, a hopeful place.
You could be forgiven for thinking that Cushla Lay and Donna Baldwin were two friends catching up in a living room in one of their homes. The truth is, they aren’t. Donna is the receptionist at the Hutt Valley DHB Breast Clinic and her determination to make sure that every woman referred to the breast screening service has her mammogram, saved Cushla’s life.
At 45, Cushla went for her first mammogram. There were no issues identified and with no familial history of breast cancer, Cushla could not see the point of having another mammogram done, when two years later she received a call from Donna to come in for her two yearly check-up.
“It was blatant laziness. I just could not be bothered taking the time out of my day to go to a breast screening!” Cushla, who works in the Hutt Valley DHB Sterile Services Department, says.
“The first time Donna called me to say I had missed my mammogram, I said I had forgotten, the second time, she rang the day before the scheduled screening and I said I couldn’t come, so she rescheduled my appointment. By the third time she called me, I had seriously considered changing my number because I thought she was stalking me. I honestly considered it, but then, I thought I couldn’t be bothered having to send everyone my new mobile number! The next time I was supposed to go, I was unwell and had to cancel that appointment and to be honest, I actually only went to the appointment she rescheduled to get rid of her,” Cushla explains.
When Cushla went for her second mammogram, a 3 millimetre cancerous growth was found in one of her breasts. Cushla had highly invasive stage three breast cancer, which had spread to her lymph nodes.
Following a lumpectomy, during which cancerous tissue is removed from the breast; Cushla went through 8 months of chemotherapy, 6 weeks of radiation and a year and a half of taking medication to beat the disease.
“I don’t consider myself in remission now, I consider myself cancer free,” says Cushla.
“From the time you are diagnosed, until treatment starts and throughout treatment, you are in good hands. You can be safe in the knowledge that you are being looked after by medical specialists who deal with cancer on a daily basis. They explain everything so that you can make informed decisions and are confident in those decisions.”
As a result of her treatment, Cushla has been able to be there for her family, her four children and her five grandchildren, two of her five grandbabies are due in the next couple of months and Cushla cannot wait to meet them.
“ Two more are arriving, one in October and one in November and one has been born since my treatment,” Cushla says, beaming with pride, as only a grandmother can.
Cushla says her diagnosis has given her the chance at living a happy, fulfilled life with her husband and whānau. Memories and time she would have lost forever, had it not been for Donna’s persistence to get Cushla to have her mammogram.
“If I had not gone for that mammogram when I did and waited another two years to go again. I would be dead now. It is not worth losing your life for five minutes out of your day. That is all it takes, just five minutes to have your breasts checked. What is five minutes in the big scheme of things?” Cushla says.
“It was Donna’s phone call. It was that phone call that is the reason I am sitting here today.”
Donna, who has been working at the breast screening clinic for years, says she doesn’t give up easily when it comes to contacting the women who are referred to the clinic.
“Oh I do annoy people. I call their mobiles, their home phones. Eventually they will answer and ask ‘was that you ringing me?’ I just keep going until they answer!” Donna laughs.
“I love my job and I love my ladies,” Donna says.
It is in this waiting room at the Breast Clinic where many women wait to hear their biopsy/surgery results; they wait to hear about treatment plans and options for next steps.
“I want this to be a happy place; this is not a fearful place. It is not a place of doom and gloom. Chances are the ladies and men who come through here will be fine. Breast cancer can be curable,” says Donna.
Cushla agrees and warns that women shouldn’t assume “it won’t happen to me”.
“I thought because I breastfed four babies I wouldn’t get breast cancer. I thought because no one in my family had breast cancer, I wouldn’t get it. I thought only older women got breast cancer. I was only 47! There is a reason that mammograms are free.”
As a result of her journey, Cushla wants other women to make sure they have their screenings done.
“This whole journey totally changed my outlook on life. I am more appreciative of every day. I don’t stress out anymore. I don’t worry about, or wonder what the future holds. I want to support people going through this journey, but I also want women who think screening is not important to know that it is. Don’t listen to the voice in your head telling you not to do it, just get it done. It will save your life.”
October is Breast Awareness Month. Make sure you speak to your doctor if you have any concerns about your breast health. Visit https://www.breastcancerfoundation.org.nz/breast-awareness for more information on breast cancer.