Diagnosed with breast cancer at 25-years-old, Rachel has faced a new set of challenges.
Diagnosed with breast cancer at 25-years-old, Rachel has faced a new set of challenges.

It can happen to anyone ...

As a photojournalist with The Coffs Coast Advocate, Rachel Vercoe has written many stories about ­people on cancer journeys.

In January, 25-year-old Rachel was diagnosed with breast cancer and began her own journey.

She shares from her online diary ­to spread the message of the importance of early detection.

Over a six month period, I had 16 rounds of chemo. At least one person from my family was there for every appointment.
Over a six month period, I had 16 rounds of chemo. At least one person from my family was there for every appointment. Lisa Vercoe

YOU have breast cancer. The words no one ever wants to hear. Especially at 25.

While friends were buying houses, getting engaged and deciding what series to watch on Netflix, I was facing body altering decisions and dreaded cancer treatments.

In January, my life changed dramatically.

I was carefree and enjoying the things I love - horse riding, spearfishing, spending time with my dog and settling into my third year of full-time work as a photojournalist at the Coffs Coast Advocate.

All that changed to a life of needles, scans, tests, doctors, specialists and surgeries.

It started on a day like any other - until I felt a lump on my chest.

I booked into the doctor and what followed was ultrasounds, biopsies and more appointments.

Sitting at my desk in the newsroom, an unknown number popped up on my phone. I picked up and that's the moment my life changed.

"I'm sorry to say but it is breast cancer."

Breaking this news to your closest family and friends is gut wrenching.

Before being thrown into the chaos of treatment, my family spent a perfect afternoon at the beach doing what we enjoy with my horse Willow and dogs Belle and Daisy.

Breast cancer isn't all smiling pink posters of strong, empowered women with scars across their chest.

It's feeling like you've been thrown into a whole other world with debilitating chemotherapy, self-identity stripping treatments and body altering surgeries. A world you never wanted to be part of.

I was thinking about my own mortality. Was I going to survive?

As a single 25-year-old, I'd never had many thoughts about having kids and here I was making decisions about fertility and saving eggs in case chemotherapy took away my chances.

I was then forced into medical menopause to protect my body from the harsh treatments.

With my family by my side, I flew to Sydney for multiple appointments with surgeons at Westmead Hospital.

My surgeries would be in Sydney and treatments done locally.

Living in Coffs Harbour, I always felt lucky to call somewhere so beautiful home, but now felt lucky to have an amazing cancer clinic here at the hospital.

To prepare for chemo, a portacath was inserted under the skin on my chest.

I had a constant reminder of what was happening to me.

Walking through the cancer clinic doors for the first time felt like a sick joke.

It took 13 days after my first chemotherapy for my hair to fall out. In an amazing act of support, my mum and sister shaved their heads as well.

Fast forward six months since diagnosis and I finished 16 rounds of chemo - one on my 26th birthday.

By the end of chemo when I looked in the mirror, I couldn't recognise the face staring back.

Just as I became confident and accepting of myself as a young woman, my self-identity was stripped away and my body dragged through the wringer.

From the tall girl with long blonde hair, I was now the tall girl with no hair, eyebrows or lashes.

I was a cancer patient. Wearing a beanie wasn't going to hide the fact.

At 26, this was one of the hardest things to accept.

At the end of chemotherapy, the next big decision was surgery.

While surgeons recommended a lumpectomy followed by radiation, my gut was telling me double mastectomy.

After a session with a radiation professor, my mind was made up.

At 26, I didn't want to put my body through radiation if I had a choice.

Mid-September my family drove me to Westmead Hospital in Sydney to go under the knife.

As soon as I woke up and ever since, I haven't had one regret.

One of the main things I've learnt since being diagnosed is breast cancer doesn't discriminate.

I don't carry the gene, I've always been active, healthy, never smoked, never did drugs and very rarely had alcohol.

If I can get cancer, anyone can.

It doesn't matter what age, race, body type or genes you carry, there is a risk of breast cancer and you can't beat early detection.

You're never too young,

I hope women and men start checking their bodies more regularly and if you feel something out of the norm, get it checked today.

Early detection has saved my life.

Treatment is ongoing

Facing cancer is traumatic no matter what age of life you're at but different age groups face a variety of challenges.

For young women under 40 with breast cancer, issues include fertility, ovarian suppression during treatment, early menopause and not being able to breastfeed after a double mastectomy.

The harshness of chemotherapy can bring on early menopause which can be temporary or permanent.

Recent data from the National Breast Cancer Foundation has revealed a woman's risk of breast cancer is now one in seven, up from last year's one in eight.

Without research, 30,000 more lives will be lost to breast cancer by 2030.

There are a number of different types of breast cancer including invasive, ductal or hormone positive and each diagnosis has a different treatment.

For Rachel, she has triple positive breast cancer which means she will continue a targeted drug treatment until next year and follow on with another adjuvant treatment to block oestrogen production for five years.

My best friend cut my hair off. The plait was donated to Variety Children's charity.
My best friend cut my hair off. The plait was donated to Variety Children's charity. Lisa Vercoe


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