Written by Emma Russell, Multimedia Journalist, New Zealand Herald.
Anastasia Walsh never expected to be looking death in the eye at age 23.
Yet, three months after giving birth to her giggly daughter Esmae, the Martinborough mum was diagnosed with incurable breast cancer.
"We have been in and out of hospital more times than I care to remember. But I will not let it take life away from me," Walsh told the Herald on Sunday.
Now 24, she shared her story as part of October's Breast Cancer Awareness Month with a message: "If there's something wrong, don't settle for no".
"Don't wait like I did because if it's caught quickly, your outcome might be better."
In March, when Esmae was 3 weeks old, Walsh said her breast started getting red, hot and "Esmae hadn't been latching very well and when she did it was an extremely painful latch."
Walsh said she went to her doctor, as her midwife was away, and he performed an ultrasound, which determined some sort of blocked mass.
"Due to the symptoms, I was having he just prescribed antibiotics and off home I was sent." She said the antibiotics resolved the redness and some swelling.
"My husband is a dairy farmer so a week later when I felt a lump, he said it was likely bruising from the mastitis as that's what happens with cows." Mastitis is an inflammation of breast tissue that sometimes involves an infection. A few weeks later, she said her breast was triple the size of the other one.
"I had been to see a lactation consultant to discuss Esmae's latch and why it was so painful, she said the latch was perfect so I tried some lay-back feeding."
One morning, in the shower, she took a photo of her breasts and that's when she realised something really wasn't right. This time, her GP referred her to the hospital for urgent scans, which came back showing two large masses in her breast. Her underarm lymph nodes were enlarged.
After more tests, aggressive cancer was confirmed in one of her breasts, her lymph nodes, chest and underarm. She was diagnosed with stage four breast cancer in May. "Facing mortality was one of the hardest things I've ever done, and not knowing where you're at and how long you'd have or whether the treatment would work," Walsh said.
After six rounds of chemotherapy and six rounds of immunotherapy she is now booked in for surgery to remove her breast. "We haven't had a smooth round of chemo yet, from infections to blood clots." She said the family tried to carry on with life as normally as they could.
"I'm kind of a one foot in front of the other kind of person. It's definitely hit my husband a lot more, I think, just not knowing what's going to happen."
Walsh said her children got her through each day and she couldn't imagine not being there to see them get married or buy a house. "Xavier is very caring, very emotional so he takes a lot on and he cries a lot. He can't stand anyone having any sort of tension. "Esmae, well, she just sits there and smiles and giggles and is a bottomless pit and eats everything you put in front of her." She said she had two completely different children.
"If I didn't have them, I would almost feel like I wouldn't have a reason to continue. My kids need me, every kid needs their mum."
About breast cancer in New Zealand
More than 3500 women across the country are diagnosed with breast cancer every year. That's nine a day.
Of those detected, about 650 will die each year.
About one in 10 women diagnosed with breast cancer in New Zealand are under 45 years old. Young women often have poorer survival rates because they are more likely to be picked up with later-stage, aggressive tumours.
Every year 25 men are diagnosed with breast cancer in NZ too.
Breast cancer in younger women is less common, but it does tend to be more aggressive. Of the 3500 women diagnosed each year, nearly 400 of them will be under 45.
Wāhine Māori are 35 per cent more likely to be diagnosed with breast cancer than non-Māori and 33 per cent more likely to die.
Pasifika women are 20 per cent more likely to be diagnosed than non-Pasifika and 52 per cent more likely to die.
The 10-year survival rate if breast cancer is detected by mammogram is 95 per cent, but this falls to 85 per cent if a woman finds a lump.
Editor’s note: Aotearoa Wahine Toa Ora Trust (AWTO Trust) the New Zealand 2023 IBCPC festival organisers is really pleased to advise that they have donated to the work of Associate Professor Logan Walker, University of Otago (Christchurch campus) medical school for his research work. Some of you may recall Logan’s brilliant keynote address at the IBCPC 2023 Congress. The trust has also donated to the work of Professor Ian Campbell of the Breast Cancer Research Trust again for his amazing work. Ian was also a keynote speaker at the Congress.