New Year’s Day 2009 dawned with both a realisation and a declaration that, with life going along well, this would be my year. A year for Donna. My time.
I was a single mum of three wonderful children. My two eldest, both sons, were forging their careers and had recently moved out of the nest. My daughter – my baby – was now driving and would soon turn 18. After so many years of looking after other people, I figured it was my turn. I could step back a bit from the hands-on parenting and enjoy watching my children’s progress to adulthood from a little more of a distance.
“Great,” I thought. “Now it’s finally time time to spoil myself for a change.” So I declared to myself – and to others – that this would be MY TIME. How right I was – but not in the way I’d expected.
In March of that year, I was to be honoured with the award of Woman of the Year after being nominated by our local member in recognition of my years of charity work, which included co-ordinating the national Look Good, Feel Better program, setting up a wig library for the local oncology unit and coordinating both the Girls Night In program and the Mini Field of Women for the Breast Cancer Network (BCNA).
While in Sydney to attend the awards ceremony at Parliament House, a casual conversation with the couple I was staying with was to change my life – although I didn’t know it at the time.
As the Executive Chairman of Myer at the time, my girlfriend’s husband was telling me how BreastScreen had been set up in some of the company’s larger stores to enable greater access for women.
He asked me about mammography services in Dubbo, and I casually answered that, given my age at the time, I hadn’t yet had a BreastScreen check.
It started me thinking. “I’m only 44,” I said. “I’ve breast fed three children; I have no family history of breast cancer…”
So I didn’t think I was at risk.
I was too busy helping and worrying about others – like so many other women – that I just hadn’t stopped to think about my own health.
But I promised myself I’d have a screen, and also find out more about the local service.
I kept that promise and contacted the local Breastscreen promotion officer. What she told me was sobering: any given day, in a city the size of Dubbo, 60 women are walking around with breast cancer and don’t know it.
In my position as manager of local community newspaper Dubbo Photo News, I realised we were in a great position to raise awareness, so I set a challenge to the business community to make sure their staff members booked in for a mammogram.
And what better way to kick this off but to lead by example? So I rounded up the girls in the office and we all made our appointments.
In the weeks that followed, the girls all received their “all clear”.
Surely my letter would be in the post office box – as soon as I could find time to collect it.
Then came the big shock – it was “my time”.
I was on my way home from a weekend away with friends when the call came.
BreastScreen wanted to know why I hadn’t contacted them about the letter.
“What letter?” The one that said they’d found a suspicious lump in my left breast.
They needed to see me straight away.
As the initial shock lifted, I told myself I’d be fine. Nine of every 10 recalls come back clear, right?
Within 48 hours, I was back at the Breastscreen cottage. Four days later came the news that would indeed prove that this year would be “my time” – although not as I intended.
I had a Grade 2, Stage 3 breast cancer.
How could this happen to me? Me? They say cancer doesn’t discriminate. It mustn’t have realised I was “low risk” – or so I thought.
I’d just become the one of the 60 I’d set out to find.
Now it was my time to be brave. I had surgery – a lumpectomy and full ancillary clearance – then six months of chemotherapy and seven weeks of radiation.
I didn't want to waste energy thinking “why me?” I didn't want this and I didn’t want to go through the treatment, but I steeled myself to accept the cards that had been dealt and try to at least find some positives.
So through my position and high profile, I chose to go public. And so was born the “Searching for 60” campaign.
Every week, through the paper, we focused at least one article on breast cancer and cancer in general, our mission being to continue to raise awareness of the importance of health checks.
One afternoon, I received a call from a girl around my age, thanking me for sharing my story. It had prompted her to make an appointment for a mammography, where she’d been diagnosed with breast cancer. She said I’d possibly saved her life.
It was the best call I could have received.
Over the ensuing months, I took four such similar calls. My surgeon thanked me, and the paper, saying he knew of several more women diagnosed because I’d shared my story.
I am also proud to say that Breastscreen quoted the fact that I’d caused a bigger spike in appointments than Kylie Minogue’s diagnosis! The local Breastscreen service had to extend appointment hours and bring in more radiographers just to cope with the demand.
So again, it was “my time”. Time to get support from some of the organisations I had long supported: My Journey kits from BCNA, the help of a breast care nurse funded by the McGrath Foundation; attending a Look Good, Feel Better workshop as a patient after 10 years as a coordinator; borrowing wigs from the library I set up, and receiving some financial support from CanAssist and the Cancer Council.
But I wanted to go further to “give back” now that I knew exactly what challenges those on the breast cancer road face every day. So in 2011, I founded Pink Angels Inc – a locally-based charity with the mission to care, help and support local diagnosed with breast cancer.
Through Pink Angels, breast cancer battlers receive – via our wonderful McGrath Foundation nurses – a care pack, summer or winter cashmere beanies if needed and, importantly, practical services to help make life just that little bit easier, including meals, housekeeping, lawn and yard care.
So now, at 51 and a Glamma to a beautiful grandson with another grand-baby on the way, I’m again declaring this is “my time”.
But this time, I’m setting my own pace and I have my own plan.
I sold my house and moved back in with my parents, so I could fund the purchase of an “RV”.
I quit my job, threw caution to the wind, and decided to take a “gap year”.
Now it’s my time.
My time to be the Lady in the Pink Van. The “groovy booby bus”.
I’ll be taking to the roads in search not only of time for my own reflections on the journey so far, but to continue to raise awareness and support for breast screening and those on the breast cancer road.
It’s my time – but I’m using that time to help make sure others know that at any time, it could be “their time”.
Donna Falconer - Survivor.
Groovy Booby Bus.
Pink Angels inc Founder & President.
BCNA Community Liaison.