Catherine Peter has devoted her life to looking after others. Working as a nurse at the Royal Adelaide, Queen Elizabeth and Lyell McEwin hospitals for nearly 30 years, she’s always supported those who have needed it most.
In February 2011, the tables turned for Catherine when she found a lump on her breast and was diagnosed with breast cancer.
“Being from a nursing background, my husband Andy and I jumped to the worst conclusions. I was first told I was too young and had nothing to worry about, but it didn’t feel right to me and you always have to go with your gut feelings on these things.”
Catherine was right. After persisting with doctors, scans found cancerous cells which resulted in a full mastectomy of her right breast and heavy chemotherapy treatment. Catherine’s journey was not over when tests found she carried the hereditary BRCA1 gene – the Breast Cancer gene.
“I had the gene passed down from my dad’s side of the family but I had breast and other cancers both sides of my family tree.”
In October 2011, Catherine successfully finished her treatment for her initial diagnosis and began preventative surgeries for the BRCA1 gene. She underwent a mastectomy on her other breast and a full hysterectomy due to the gene’s link with ovarian cancer.
Wanting to share her breast cancer experience further, Catherine began her role as a Breast Cancer Network Australia Community Liaison to not only give hope to other breast cancer patients, but in the hope of saving someone’s life.
“It took me a while to want to do things with my experience, but I thought to myself ‘I want these people going through what I did to have the right information’. There are lots of services out in the community that people don’t know about.”
Prevention was a motivator, too. “Being someone younger diagnosed with breast cancer, I thought if I’m out in the community telling my story it might make some young person go home and feel their breasts and find something early. I want people to know it doesn’t matter how old you, are you should always check yourself and talk to your doctor about it.”
Catherine says her story has already encouraged those close to her to receive checks and raise awareness on the possibility of early detection.
“After hearing my story, my female nursing colleagues all went and got tested for breast cancer as most of them were around the age of 50 but kept putting it off. Just getting people to do that step…so they get their reminder letters from Breast Screen SA… it makes me feel like I’ve achieved something.”
Catherine now uses her job as an opportunity to speak to nurses and doctors about her breast cancer experience, highlighting what it’s like from the other side – as a patient. In June, she presented her speech My Experience – The Other Side of the Bedat the Day Surgery Nurse Association conference.
“Just because we may look normal [as breast cancer patients], does not mean we are on the inside. I wanted to give nurses insight into my experience as a patient with medical knowledge, to let them think about what it would be like for patients with no medical knowledge in a strange environment. It’s important to remind nurses that you don’t know what a person has been through before they’ve come to surgery and just to watch what you say and do.”
Earlier this year, Catherine and her family attended the Breast Cancer Network Australia’s Field of Women event at the Melbourne Cricket Ground where they stood on the oval alongside 18,000 others to represent the number of Australians diagnosed with breast cancer this year.
“We all cried on the oval with the emotion…it brought back so many memories for us as a family. It was amazing to see so many people standing in support and in memory of their loved ones.”
This year, Catherine will be continuing her work as a Community Liaison by organising fundraising events and presenting speeches. She’s also working on developing a group exercise program at the Lyell McEwin hospital, after hearing about the benefits of exercise during cancer treatment. She hopes the program will help patients through the side effects of chemotherapy.
When it comes to advice, Catherine says it’s important to remember that every breast cancer patient’s journey will be different. She says patients should do what feels right for them.
“Not everyone’s treatment is going to be the same so be sure to take everything at your own pace and seek emotional support when you need. Whether it’s a GP, counsellor or support person, talking to someone is so important.”
To support Catherine and the work of Breast Cancer Network Australia visit the website.
A note from the editor: Amy Northcott was a finalist in our yearly competition for final-year students from the University of South Australia School Of Creative Industries to enter a piece to be featured in Fritz. This year, we have chosen three finalists whose stories we will be publishing online. Each were asked to write a feature piece on a ‘local hero’.
Stay tuned for our other two stories, and congratulations to all students who wrote pieces for the competition. We’re so proud and excited to support and encourage young writers in South Australia.