Summit tackles breast cancer 'serial killer'

Breast cancer survivor Fay Sowerby sees the disease as a serial killer.

Breast cancer survivor Fay Sowerby sees the disease as a serial killer.

Fay Sowerby was in a changing room at Lululemon in Auckland when she felt the lump.

It was 2013, and she was about to go to the United States to visit her daughter, who was due to give birth to her second child.

"I had the wrong size top, so I put my hand across my chest to cover myself ... when I put the fingers on the side of my breast I could feel a small lump like a pill.

Breast cancer survivor Fay Sowerby now, with her husband, Warren.

Breast cancer survivor Fay Sowerby now, with her husband, Warren.

"It was so real and I knew enough – I knew immediately I was in trouble."

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Her husband's immediate reaction was that everything would be all right, but Sowerby knew it wouldn't.

Doctors said they hoped it was a cyst, and a mammogram was inconclusive. 

The lump became rougher. "What I didn't know was there were three lumps, like a lily pad, and they would have formed into a larger lump."

Because she caught it early, Sowerby could get into chemotherapy and radiation therapy, which worked. 

But as a member of the not-for-profit group Breast Cancer Cure, she is keen to ensure there is better detection and access to treatment for other women.

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Breast cancer was a serial killer in New Zealand, and had to be stopped, she said.

"There are 3000 attempted murders a year, and this number grows as our population grows and as we age ... 600 people are killed [each year] and although we are slowly dropping this number, we have not turned breast cancer into a curable or chronic disease."

A Breast Cancer Summit on Friday in Auckland will bring together leading international and local breast cancer clinicians, scientists, health professionals and patients with the aim of working out a plan on how to move forward with an attack on the country's third biggest cancer.

It would be about "putting a stake in the ground" and agreeing on priorities that could make a difference in New Zealand, Sowerby said.

Māori women are 60 per cent more likely to die from breast cancer than European New Zealanders, the Breast Cancer Aotearoa Coalition has said. 

Sowerby said it was not known why this was the case, but inequalities around access to care and treatment would be discussed at the summit.

The coalition has already made a firm call for breast cancer drug Ibrance (palbociclib) to be publicly funded by Pharmac. 

MedSafe has approved the use of Ibrance for those with certain breast cancer, but it's only available to those who can pay for it.​

A Lower Hutt mother and Massey University tutor Mary Margaret Schuck said she had been travelling to Malaysia for nearly a year to buy the drug, at a cost of about $7500 for a three-month supply.

The drug had been effective and she currently had no evidence of active disease.

"Most people don't have the ability to pay thousands of dollars every month to travel for a medicine to keep them alive. It feels so unfair that we have a system where that is the only option," she said.

 - Stuff


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