Sarah Donges Tells Us About The Day She Was Diagnosed With Breast Cancer ... And Why She Says She's Lucky - The Grace Tales

Sarah Donges Tells Us About The Day She Was Diagnosed With Breast Cancer … And Why She Says She’s Lucky

When my eldest son started school last year and I navigated my way through the minefield of other mothers, I spotted a woman from across the playground and - much like a new kindergarten child myself - thought, "I would like to be friends with her."

She oozed cool (the sparkling sneakers were just a taste), managed to have three happy children under wraps while maintaining conversations with every parent she encountered, and most notably, seemed to move through the school with a warmth and depth of kindness of someone who knew who she was in the world. As the weeks of term 1 ticked on, my initial wishes came true, and we became friends with the remarkable Sarah Donges and her family. A woman who had a score of successful businesses under her belt (Box For Monkeys being just one), a present mother to her three gorgeous children, and a friend who always gave more than she received. There was also much more to Sarah than met the eye, perhaps because the challenges she faced were always met with her unmistakable smile. Most recently, she met the challenge of a breast cancer diagnosis head-on. Sarah beautifully shared her story with us, but in true Sarah style, did so only to give a warning and a lesson to us all …

Here is Sarah’s story, in her own words.

I remember the day like it was yesterday. I remember where I was sitting. I remember where my husband was. My phone rang, and it was my GP. The first thing she said was, “Sars, is Corey there?” When I said he was, she replied, “Put me on speaker phone. This is serious, babe. You have breast cancer.”

Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck is all I could say. I am 42 and have three young children. But luck was on my side. Incredible, fortunate luck. Let me rewind to explain how that phone call came to be. Because what led me to that diagnosis – or even to have an ultrasound in the first place – can’t be in vain. I want you to have luck on your side too. In March 2018, I had a mammogram that didn’t come up with any issues. Always a breath of relief, right? But in the months leading up to October 2019, I had an ache in my breast that would sometimes appear. Sometimes it would wake me up at night, and at times it would ache for a few hours or even days. It was always in my left breast and I was left wondering what the pain was. In July 2019, I had my regular pap smear and breast examination. There were no issues with either. Why would there be? I am young (my children think I am 25 and that’s how I feel!) and there is no history of cervical cancer or breast cancer in my family.

But there is cancer...

My darling sister passed away in 2018 from brain cancer and one of my nieces also had a malignant tumour behind her eye. Prior to this, my family was incredibly lucky, with all my grandparents passing away late in their lives. So after all these reassuring signs, why should I be worried about an ache? Because my instinct told me something was wrong. When you leave the house and you know you’ve forgotten something, or when you wake up in the morning and know there is something on that you need to rush for. That kind of instinct. I then read an article that made me book an appointment straight away. It was in the Sydney Morning Herald and was about a woman, Jessica who was diagnosed with breast cancer. As October was Breast Cancer Awareness month they listed 5 signs you need to get your breasts checked, I only had one. An ache. No lump, no misshapen breast, no redness, no nipple discharge. Just an ache. I went back to my GP on Monday 14 October at 4:15pm. She checked my breast again. She said it felt fine and was no doubt just hormonal pains. But she gave me a referral for an ultrasound just in case. I called first thing the next morning and made an appointment for 3pm on the Thursday. Perfect. That would work around my family I could pick up the kids. When the appointment came around, during the scan, the radiographer Fiona was initially quite chatty. She was just about to head home to walk her dog. Then she was quiet. All I heard was clicking. She said that as my breasts were dense, she would like to try me on a new machine she was being trained on, and would I mind if the trainer (who was in the office) could come in too. I closed my gown and moved rooms. Dread was starting to creep in. The two of them started on the same breast that she had fallen silent on before. They talked amongst themselves using unfamiliar medical terms. Fiona told me to get dressed and to meet her out the front for my scans. When she handed to me, she said, “Obviously, we have found something.” But what? “A full report will be sent to your GP, and that’s all I can say.” I was terrified and upset. I rang my husband as I walked back to the car. I was crying and told him that something was wrong. I just didn’t know what it was yet. He told me he’d leave work immediately and would meet me at home. I rang my GP’s office and told the receptionist that there was a report coming. I asked for my GP to read it and to call me ASAP. By the time I got home, my husband had just arrived and my GP rang. “Sars, is Corey there?” She asked. “Put me on speaker phone. This is serious, babe. You have breast cancer.”

I didn’t sleep that night. My daughter is three. She wouldn’t remember me. My 6 and 8-year-old boys. Would they be ok? I wanted to be there to raise my kids. I wanted to see them grow up. I hadn’t yet done everything I wanted to do with my life...

I told myself that there was no point worrying yet, and that I needed to pull myself together. The next morning, we had a breakfast at my children’s school. We all went and I tried my best to be chatty. When two friends asked if I was ok, I burst immediately into tears. I remember telling them not to make a big deal out of it. Stupidly, I was embarrassed about making a scene. My friend ran after me when we left the school and covered me in a big bear hug. “I’m here when you need me,” she told me. The two weeks that followed were a blur of appointments. As I wanted to get started with a plan and treatment as soon as possible, the only option presented to me was the private system. My GP had made an appointment for me to have my first scans at 10am the next morning at St Vincent’s Private Clinic, and I was so fortunate that my husband’s work gave him immediate leave, so I had him by my side for everything. One of my best friends Brie (a doctor), also came along to my first appointments with her baby son in tow, she helped me know what to ask. At that first appointment, I had another mammogram and ultrasound, and then core biopsies on my breast and lymph nodes. I cried through the whole thing. The radiographer put her hand on me and said, “It will all be ok, Sarah.” I was so lucky to have such lovely medical staff that day. All so kind, caring and supportive.

We then had the weekend to wait. A very, very long weekend...

The following week I saw my Oncologist and Breast Specialist. I was terrified. But I wasn’t alone. Dave – my oncologist – and his nurse Kate were so lovely. We had the usual chit chat and then he said, “I can see you are worried Sarah. I have the results of your biopsies and it is showing as DCIS … or pre-cancer.” I looked at Brie and her expression told me it was great news. You see, I was lucky. I still needed to have an MRI to see exactly the area they were looking at, but Dave told me I’d need to have a mastectomy on one breast. I instantly told him, “I’ll have a double, thanks.” Just like I was ordering a drink. He said there was no need to decide immediately and that I should see a plastic surgeon first. What I have learned is that the great thing about having a breast specialist is that they have a team they work with. He thought JSK would be best for me and his office made a time for me to go the next day. It seems things happen fast in the private sector. Thankfully I was warned that I may feel a little uncomfortable initially with the plastic surgeon examination. But by now, I’d had my top off so much that I was actually quite relaxed. Plastic surgeons need to see old scars to check how you heal and to see whether it’s right to have a tissue transfer instead of silicone, and where they can get the fat from. A tissue transfer is essentially live tissue that is transplanted into the breast. It could be from your inner thigh, breast or lower abdomen. My surgeon gently grabbed my skin to see where I had the most excess. After three pregnancies, the lower abdomen was ideal. However, the surgery for tissue transfer is very long. Given there was still a chance I may need follow up chemotherapy or radiation, it was not recommended in the initial surgery. As I was only hoping for one surgery, I opted for the mastectomy, followed by silicone implants. But you are never quite sure if everything you ask for will be granted. I learned that during the operation, it may have been best to have an expander put in and to reconstruct afterwards. I may also have needed to have lymph nodes removed. Or my nipple removed. I had a 13cm area of diseased tissue that needed to come out, quite a lot for a small-busted girl like me. I decided that none of this was in my control, and so I wouldn’t worry about it. Much like childbirth – when my only goals were to get the babies out safely – I approached my breast surgery in the same way. Being ok afterward was the only goal. I was setting myself up to avoid disappointment. My surgery was on Halloween. As I was in surgery for six hours, my husband and three children went trick or treating. Life needed to go on. My husband received a call from the surgeon at 9:30pm. He told him, “The surgery was a success. We only needed to remove seven lymph nodes that were caught up in the diseased tissue. Her nipples should survive. We were lucky to implant the silicone.” When my husband relayed the same news to me, I couldn’t believe it. Again, how lucky could I be? The next nine days in hospital were not easy. Your goal in the first 24 hours is to have a big breath and cough. It may not sound like much, but I struggled with both. The pain was so intense and I needed help. As the first time in my adult life that I had been vulnerable, it was tough. I needed help to get out of bed. To put my clothes on. To pour a glass of water. I felt enormous empathy for all the woman that had been through this and strength in it too. Within two weeks, I needed to start creeping my fingers up the wall. It felt like the hardest thing I’d ever had to do. I needed my husband to shower me and dress me. It was difficult but he never complained. He became excellent at washing and drying my hair. Every day, I had visitors who took me on walks and kept me sane. Wherever I went, I needed to carry two bags that held my four drains that removed excess fluid. As a lot of my initial pain was associated with those drains, I looked forward to seeing the end of them. As a little family, we were overwhelmed with love and support. We had meals made, vouchers for deliveries, phone calls, texts, help with the kids, gentle hugs. I could never thank everyone enough. I just hope that I will be able to repay them all one day. I never asked for help and I was overwhelmed by the help that was offered and given.

I had so much luck...

A great husband, family and friends for support, a great medical team and pre-cancer as a diagnosis. Isn’t that lucky? But it wasn’t until I mentioned this to my husband – when he told me I’d made my own luck – that I realised he might be right. To start with, I’d taken out Critical Illness Insurance four months before my diagnosis. Completely on a whim when reassessing our health insurance. My surgeries totalled $32,000, and we needed to come up with it in 14 days. Even though we did need to pay up front, that Critical Illness insurance reimbursed us $25,000. That’s significant for a young family. I’d also followed up and had scans although I was assured it was most likely just hormonal pain. Maybe I was lucky. Or maybe I made my own luck. Regardless, I want you to be lucky too. Look after yourself. Have yourself checked. As women, we so often put our health and our needs behind our family. But without us, our families will be very different. So, have the checks you need. Get Critical Illness or Trauma Insurance. Ask for help. Whether it’s looking after children while you go to an appointment or needing time by yourself, just ask. Don’t take your health for granted. Look after it. Tomorrow is not guaranteed for any of us. So go on, create your own luck.