Cancer treatment is tough. Going through it without the support of loved ones is even tougher.
But that’s the journey Laetitia Olivier from Tauranga faced when she was diagnosed with breast cancer as a global pandemic unfolded and New Zealand entered lock down.
Laetitia had noticed a long oval lump the size of her thumb on the side of her breast, but the pressures of work as a diversional therapist with advanced dementia patients meant she had put it to the back of her mind.
It wasn’t until she visited her GP for another issue when her doctor asked a routine question which likely saved Laetitia’s life.
“Is there anything else I can help you with today?”
When her doctor swung into immediate action to arrange a mammogram, Laetitia realised how serious the lump might be.
“After the mammogram, I could see they were talking. I couldn’t hear what they were saying, but I could read their body language. Something was wrong.”
Laetitia was sent for an ultrasound biopsy that same day. It would be the last day before New Zealand entered level four lockdown.
The wait for the results was agonizing. When her medical centre insisted Laetitia come to the clinic on a Saturday morning to see the doctor despite lockdown, she knew the news wouldn’t be good.
“I sat there with my daughter, and he said all these medical things. I asked, ‘are you telling me I have cancer?’ He said, ‘yes’.
“The day the doctor told me I had cancer, the whole world tumbled down. You can’t believe it. What now? What do I do now? You’re so confused.
“When you go to bed at night and close your eyes, it’s the last thing you think of. When you open your eyes in the morning, you remember ‘oh my god. I have cancer’.”
A double mastectomy was scheduled for April. Physically, the side effects of surgery were similar to other surgery she’s experienced, Laetitia explains, but without the support of loved ones it was “horrifying psychologically”.
“My daughter had to drop me at the door. I had to take my bags and walk into the hospital alone. Nobody was allowed with me. It was a very tough thing to do.”
Laetitia spent six days in the hospital without any visitors.
When Laetitia returned home, one of the few people she saw during lockdown was Cancer Society supportive care nurse Angelique Ensor. As an essential worker Angelique was able to visit Laetitia to check in with her and deliver meals so she didn't have to cook while recovering from surgery. They would talk through the window to maintain physical distance, Laetitia recalls.
The isolation took its toll psychologically and Laetitia says she struggled to process the whole experience. Video calls to her four adult children and six grandchildren — living in New Zealand, the US and Laetitia’s home country, South Africa — were no substitute for physical contact.
“I wanted my kids. I wanted hugs and attention. Even now with Covid affecting travel, I still don’t know when I’ll get to hug them all again.”
To help cope, Angelique made arrangements for Laetitia to talk with a clinical psychologist.
“I couldn’t have done this without the Cancer Society. I was extremely emotional. To tell the honest truth, I still am. You feel so fragile.”
The move to alert level three ended the period of strict isolation and meant Laetitia could expand her ‘bubble’ to include her daughter and grandson.
But several months on, the road to recovery isn’t yet over for Laetitia as she continues to come to terms with the physical changes since her double mastectomy.
“I didn’t want to look in the mirror. The second time I went to shower after my surgery, I accidentally saw myself in the mirror and I had a meltdown. It was a big shock to see what I looked like. I didn’t feel like me.”
In November Laetitia will be able to see a consultant about reconstructive surgery. It’s important to have breasts again, she says, to feel more like her normal self.
“One thing I have learned from this experience is, if you have a bottle of exotic perfume and you have a beautiful dress, don’t put it away for a special day. Every day is a special day. So many times you buy a dress for a special occasion, but maybe you don’t get that special day. What if tomorrow doesn’t come?”
It’s something Laetitia knows all too well after losing her husband Jay-D to cancer six years ago, and facing her own breast cancer journey.
“Every day — the sun, the birds, friends and family — is special.”