“I kept having nightmares that I had breast cancer before I found a lump.”
For mother-of-two Jodie Leworthy (pictured above with her children), reality proved to be even worse than her nightmares, as she found herself undergoing breast cancer treatment in the middle of a pandemic.
Diagnosed with an aggressive cancer 12 months ago, the 33-year-old began chemotherapy in Melbourne before the city entered its first lockdown.
“My first six weeks of chemo, I had my family with me,” she said, “and then Covid hit in March. That’s when everything became lonely.”
At a higher risk of breast cancer recurrence because she has the BRCA2 gene mutation, Jodie was scheduled for a mastectomy in June, but it was delayed by a month.
A backlog of surgeries had been created by the COVID-19 induced regulations at her hospital. These included increased coronavirus testing and the frequently changing government rules on surgery.
“Pretty much everything was held back. You had to have a Covid swab, but they would forget to do it, so they would delay that part of treatment for a week before results came in.”
A month later, Jodie underwent breast reconstruction; the last patient to have this surgery at Frankston Hospital before non-emergency surgery came to a halt in August.
Her surgeon found dying cancer tissue on her breast the day she was meant to leave hospital, but ruled out an operation after 51 staff members tested positive to COVID-19. Some had worked in Jodie’s ward.
She was sent home to self-isolate for 14 days, yet still required care.
“When I went in for a clinic appointment, I would have to call from my car and they would put me in an isolation room. The surgeon would get a nurse in PPE to take photos of my breasts and show the registrars because they had furloughed my entire plastic surgery team.
“I was having to do my own dressing changes, no one would touch me.”
“I had so much swelling, so much pain, so much redness, but couldn’t do anything about it.”
Jodie also underwent a successful ovariectomy in November. Then, when Melbourne’s lockdown ended, she was able to see her extended family for the first time in over four months.
“We went out and bought a caravan. It has really made us realise that life is too short to waste!”
If Jodie has learnt anything through this process, it is the importance of early detection.
“People need to know young people get cancer too. It’s so important for young women to check their breasts,” she says.
Jodie’s warning is echoed by UNSW cancer researcher Professor Geoffrey Delaney, following data released by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare.
It shows that participation in cancer screening has dropped significantly during the pandemic.
“If screening rates go down, then the likelihood of catching an early cancer goes down.”
A UK study set out to model cancer deaths in England due to COVID-19 diagnosis delays.
It found that mortality rates would increase because patients are less likely to present at a screening or present with symptoms to a GP. The study estimated between a 7.9% – 9.6% increase in the number of breast cancer-related deaths in the five years after diagnosis.
Professor Delaney predicts a similar future for Australia.
“If patients present later with their cancer, we’ll eventually find these cancers in symptomatic patients [rather] than in screened patients. Then there will be a drop in survival and an increased need for chemotherapy and radiation.”
Participation was anticipated to decline due to BreastScreen Australia’s temporary suspension. It has since re-opened.
For more information on its screening procedures you can go to their website, breastscreen.nsw.gov.au.
— Ella Smith