Give hope to families like Gemma's today!
Day in, day out, Gemma lives in fear that breast cancer will take her from her children.
Gemma was just 27 when she had to warn her two children – Haylee aged eight, and her son Will who was six – that life was about to change.
Mummy was going to change. She wouldn’t even look the same.
“It came as a complete shock to be diagnosed with an extremely aggressive breast cancer,” Gemma explains. “I was terrified. At first, I couldn’t look my children in the eye because I kept thinking, “Will they be okay when I’m gone?”
Gemma was walking Haylee and Will home from school when she saw her chance. They passed a man with a bald head. “Would he get sunburn?’” the children wondered. Gemma went quiet for a minute. Then she said…
“Mummy’s going to have to take some medicine soon that will make her hair fall out.”
HER-2 positive breast cancer, which Gemma was diagnosed with, is one of the most aggressive forms of breast cancer and it often affects younger women like her, at a time when they are raising children.
We must continue to raise funds for research to fund work to find new ways of treating aggressive breast cancers that threaten the lives of women like Gemma.
Gemma greatly values every dollar given towards research because research provides her with hope. “There would be no treatment advances – ever – without research,” she says.
Hope that keeps women like Gemma going through the toughest of treatments.
As a trained nurse, Gemma knew not to ignore it when her nipple became very itchy. She made an appointment to see her GP right away.
But did she really think it could be breast cancer? At the age of 27 with no family history of it, she was completely unprepared for what happened next.
During an ultrasound, a small lump was found. Gemma kept her worries to herself so that family life could continue as normal until after she’d had a biopsy. But while she waited for the results, Gemma started to feel anxious.
When she got the results, she remembers picking up the phone to her mum.
“I said, ‘Mum, it’s breast cancer’. She made this noise like a scream. I’ll never forget it.”
It was an enormous shock for Gemma and her family.
But for some women, despite all the progress that’s been made in cancer treatment, they discover that they have a form of breast cancer that’s so aggressive, it often comes back – and is incurable.
It means that – even if the gruelling treatment they undergo is successful – they continue to live under a shadow.
PA Campus researchers are working to develop new ways of treating breast cancer and by choosing the Foundation as your place to give your helping them to advance their vital work
Gemma’s treatment was physically and emotionally life-changing.
“Initially, I had a lumpectomy and lymph node removal, an auxiliary lymph node biopsy and auxiliary lymph node clearance, and a portacath insertion,” says Gemma.
After several invasive procedures, Gemma then had to undergo chemotherapy.
The most invasive surgery was yet to come. Three weeks after finishing chemotherapy, Gemma had a double mastectomy and then radiotherapy.
The goal of all these treatments was to destroy all the cancer cells in Gemma’s body. But, as Gemma knows, even when you put yourself through the most gruelling treatment, there’s a high risk of HER-2 positive breast cancer coming back, and then there’s no cure.
When Gemma finished her radiation treatment, there was no party or celebration.
“I wouldn’t allow myself to say or even think, ‘Thank God that’s over’ because I’m still living with it,” says Gemma. “
For Gemma, not a day goes by without her thoughts turning to how quickly things could change. Any unusual symptom that might be a sign that the cancer is back is a cause of huge anxiety.
“I had an eye problem a couple of years ago now,” she explains. “I couldn’t eat, speak or sleep for three days until I had an MRI scan.”
Gemma’s hopes are pinned on research that is moving, step-by-step, towards new treatments for aggressive breast cancers, including when it returns.
“I'm so passionate about supporting research,” says Gemma. “I mean, I could sleep at night if I knew that there was a treatment for my cancer if it came back.”
Right now, there are many women with the same wish as Gemma.
They’re desperately hoping that a new treatment comes before their cancer comes back and their options run out.
In recent years, significant research has been undertaken to develop new therapies using ‘monoclonal antibodies’.
We all have antibodies as part of our immune system, but they can also be made and introduced into our bodies as a therapy. They can be engineered to recognise specific proteins in tumours, then stick to them and destroy the cancer cells.
The technology attracted significant investment, which is excellent. Some new therapies went as far as Phase 3 clinical trials with patients only for the results to fall short of conventional cancer treatments.
So much good work had been done. PA researchers wondered if it might be possible to ‘rescue’ this research. The question they asked was, “Can we make this approach work better?” This is an example of the innovative thinking that is supported by the kind and generous people who choose the Foundation as their place to give.
Associate Professor Fiona Simpson and her team at the Simpson Lab are one of the PA teams working hard to find solutions for women like Gemma. They've found that working with something called an inhibitor helps keep proteins on the cell surface, making it possible for more antibodies to stick onto it, and attract the immune system to attack the cancer tumour.
They’ve completed a stage 1 clinical trial of this treatment, which proved that the therapies they’re using are safe. With this vital piece of knowledge, they’ve gone on to launch a new trial.
It’s research like this that keeps hope alive for women like Gemma and their families.