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Turning the Tables: Oncology Nurse Becomes Cancer Patient
Turning the Tables: Mount Isa Hospital Oncology Nurse Becomes Cancer Patient
For more than seven years, Mount Isa Hospital Oncology Nurse Nicole Williams has provided care and comfort to some of North West Queensland’s most vulnerable patients battling cancer, a diagnosis she never imagined she would one day face herself.
Nicole is sharing her breast cancer story to raise awareness and encourage more women to check their breasts regularly after a self-examination saved her life.
On October 3, 2020, Nicole’s life changed in an instant when she discovered a suspicious lump in her breast; she was quietly confident it was cancer.
A subsequent ultrasound, mammogram and biopsy confirmed her fears; triple-negative, stage three breast cancer; an aggressive form of cancer that appears more frequently among women in their 30s and 40s.
“Normally in cancer, if something is negative, it sounds like a good thing. In this case, it’s not because there are no other options other than chemotherapy and surgery. So, I knew instantly from working as an oncology nurse, what had to happen,” she said.
Nicole travelled to Townsville for further investigation to determine whether cancer had spread through the rest of her body.
“It hadn’t, which was excellent news. So, I returned to Mount Isa to begin chemotherapy.
“I wouldn’t have had chemotherapy anywhere else; I have full faith in my team,” she said.
During chemotherapy, Nicole became one of the first patients at the Mount Isa Hospital to use the recently purchased Scalp Cooling Machine, which helps to prevent hair loss.
“I was instrumental in raising funds for the machine, so, strangely, it came back to benefit me. I never thought I would be using it to help save my own hair during chemotherapy treatment.
“Being able to keep my hair for longer really helped me keep my dignity intact until I was ready to shave my head on my terms and in my own time. It’s hard being bald; I know that now,” she said.
During her treatment, Nicole developed chemotherapy-induced peripheral neuropathy, causing complete numbness in her fingers and toes.
“Due to that, I caught my big toe in the backdoor at home and broke it two places, so I was hobbling around with pins in my foot, not having very much fun [laughs],” she said.
In April this year, Nicole travelled to Townsville to have a total mastectomy to remove the entire breast, followed by immediate reconstruction at Townsville University Hospital.
“I was a good candidate to have the lump removed and have radiation therapy, however with my knowledge of cancer; I opted for the mastectomy.
“After a week recovering in Townsville from the surgery, I received the news, they had successfully removed all of the cancer,” she said.
Nicole says she's still unsure when asked whether her knowledge as an oncology nurse was a hindrance or help.
“For other people battling cancer, they know what they have been given in bits and pieces, and I think that can allow them to cope and process it a little better. Whereas for me, I could already see the last step before I could see the first step.
“In some ways, I think it has helped me, and it has kept me quite strong. I only cried once, and that was during chemotherapy. It made me feel really rubbish, and it was rough.
“It was like someone pulled the plug. It was a really empty feeling. It’s an essential part of cancer, but it’s also one of the most horrible parts of cancer,” she said.
Working through cancer
Passionate about her work, team, and patients, Nicole continued to work at Mount Isa Hospital’s Cancer Care Unit during her cancer treatment and recovery.
“This unit has been my life for a long time; I hired every single one of the team members; they’re part of my family, and the Cancer Care Unit has always been my home away from home. I don’t think I could have done it without my team.
“Cancer has taken enough from me already; I didn’t want it to take away what I love doing, working with the best team imaginable and caring for those who need it most,” she said.
Nicole says her experience has helped her better empathise with her patients.
“One thing I could never say was, ‘I know how you feel’, to a cancer patient. Now, I can say, ‘well, actually, I do know how you feel’ for some breast cancer patients,” she said.
Today, Nicole is cancer-free and knows how fortunate she is to be able to say that.
“Working here in the Cancer Care Unit every day keeps me very humble because I know people are sitting in this unit that won’t ever get to call themselves ‘Cancer Survivors’. That keeps me really grounded.
Nicole’s advice for people who have a loved one battling cancer is to show support, even if you don’t know the right thing to say, saying something is better than nothing.
“Cancer can be really isolating, and people can shy away from someone who is battling cancer because they don’t want to say the wrong thing, so they often don’t say anything, which can make the journey for the patient even more lonely.
“If you have a friend or colleague who is diagnosed, don’t be afraid of saying the wrong thing. Make time to keep checking in on them and treat them the same as before. It’s better to say, ‘I don’t know what to say’, than to stop calling or visiting out of fear,” she said.
A snapshot of breast cancer in Australia
- The number of people being diagnosed with breast cancer in Australia is increasing; however, the number of deaths from breast cancer is decreasing
- The risk of developing breast cancer increases with age
- The risk of being diagnosed with breast cancer by age 85 is 1 in 7 for women and 1 in 670 for men
- The average age of the first diagnosis of breast cancer for women is 62 years
- In 2021, approximately 81 per cent of new cases of breast cancer will develop in women aged 50 or above
- The chance of surviving at least five years (five-year relative survival) has increased from 74.0 per cent in 1986-1990 to 91.5 per cent in 2013-2017
What are breast cancer symptoms I need to look out for?
People of all ages should be familiar with the normal look and feel of their breasts. If you notice any of the following changes, please see your doctor immediately:
- a lump, lumpiness or thickening of the breast
- changes in the skin of a breast, such as puckering, dimpling or a rash
- persistent or unusual breast pain
- a change in the shape or size of a breast
- discharge from a nipple, a nipple rash or a change in its shape
What else can I do to reduce my breast cancer risk?
- Maintain healthy body weight
- Be physically active on most (or preferably, all) days
- Eat for health – choose a varied diet with plenty of fruit and vegetables
- Limit your alcohol intake
Remember, if you have any concerns or questions, please contact your doctor
BreastScreen Queensland Townsville Service provides quality, free breast-cancer screening services throughout the Townsville and Mount Isa Health Services and the Bowen and Collinsville communities of the Mackay Hospital and Health Service.
BreastScreen Queensland recommends that women aged 50 -74 years without signs or symptoms of breast cancer have a breast screen (screening mammogram) every two years. Women in their 40s and those 75 years and over are also eligible to attend for free.
As well as breast cancer screening for eligible women, BreastScreen Queensland Townsville also provides recall and follow-up assessment, referral to specialists, information, support, health education and counselling. The service can also provide a speaker for community groups on breast cancer awareness and breast cancer screening services, as well as information displays at community events.
After-hours screening is also available.
Our service is based in Townsville at Domain Central, Duckworth Street, Garbutt and a mobile service visits the following areas on a one or two-yearly basis:
- Charters Towers
- Julia Creek
- Magnetic Island
- Mount Isa
- Northern Beaches
- North Ward
- Palm Island
- Townsville Aboriginal and Islander Health Service (TAIHS), Garbutt
- Upper Ross PCYC, Kelso
While the service primarily targets women aged 50 to 74 years, women aged 40 and over are welcome to have a screening.
GPs, health workers and medical centres may also give clients a recommendation form to attend BreastScreen Queensland.