National | Breast Cancer

‘When I took the bandage off, that’s when I first cried’

Breast cancer survivor remembers when the tears finally came after diagnosis.

Warning: Graphic image

Breast cancer survivor Ali Coomber still remembers when the tears finally came after finding out she had cancer - and then having surgery to get one of her breasts removed.

“I remember waking up in the morning feeling a sense of dread - I remember that quite clearly. I remember coming out of hospital and I took two weeks off work.

“I remember how I felt when I first had to take the bandage off - I get a bit emotional about it now - when I had to take the bandage off my chest and I saw the big scar.

“That’s when I first cried.”

The 62-year-old is among a group of breast cancer survivors who will share their stories at a special event specifically aimed at raising awareness of the disease among Pasifika and Māori women.

The Breast Cancer Trials event will be hosted on Wednesday, in Auckland, by the biggest oncology research group in Australia and New Zealand and includes a panel of top breast cancer experts from both countries.

Participants will be able to ask questions of the panel and hear about some of the latest research into the disease and specific information on diagnosis, trials and treatments affecting Pacific Island and Māori women.

The Q&A-style event will also look at issues facing women in these communities as they relate to breast cancer, access to breast cancer screening and the challenges of recruiting culturally and linguistically diverse patients to clinical trials.

Coomber, who is part Samoan, acknowledged the high statistics of breast cancer in New Zealand.

It is the most common cancer for Kiwi women and affects one in nine New Zealand women over their lifetime, according to the Breast Cancer Foundation.

Figures from the 30,000 Voices: Informing a Better Future for Breast Cancer in New Zealand report found Pasifika women are 52 per cent more likely to die of the disease within 10 years of being diagnosed, compared to Pakeha women.

For Māori, that figure stands at 33 per cent.

“It’s important to catch it early and to understand that breast cancer [numbers] are quite high in New Zealand,” Coomber says.

“Encouraging our women to get checked and to really enrol them and encouraging the rest of our whānau to encourage their women to take those tests.”

‘They caught it early because of the mammogram’

Coomber has always made sure to go to her scheduled mammogram checks every two years. It was after one of those appointments - in May, 2021 - that the cancer was picked up.

She was called back for some biopsy tests and a few weeks later, was called back to be given the news.

“That was a bit of a shock. I kept it fairly quiet in the beginning because I was trying to sort of absorb what it might mean long-term.”

By July of that year, she was preparing to go under the knife. Initially, she was due to have a breast-conserving procedure. But a few days before her surgery, it was suggested that the entire breast should be removed instead.

“They actually found two spots and they’d joined together. So the lesion was actually bigger than they thought.

“I thought about it and I thought: ‘You know what? If they didn’t get everything, I didn’t want to go back in for another surgery’. So I opted for a mastectomy.”

It was thought Coomber might need to undergo radiotherapy after her operation. A follow-up appointment, however, showed that all was clear. The mastectomy had worked.

Encouraging Pasifika and Māori women not to shy away from checks

“I was pretty fortunate. My cancer was a grade two. They caught it early because of the mammogram.”

An inverted nipple was the only symptom she had at the time - something she did not know may be linked to breast cancer.

Coomber encouraged all women to get checked regularly and acknowledged that Pasifika women were sometimes too shy to have such checks done.

“Sometimes I find with what I’ve seen in some members of my family - they’re afraid to ask questions because they’re shy - and I think that is a cultural thing.

“It’s really, really important to ask these questions because we do count - and it’s very important to get the knowledge of what’s going on.”

These days, Coomber lives a less busy life, having moved away from inner city Auckland to quieter surroundings in Warkworth. She is mindful of what she eats and enjoys yoga.

“You really do start questioning things and start thinking about looking at things that make you happy. It really made me think of family and friends a lot and what’s important in life.

“I’m grateful for it being caught in time.”

To register to attend the event or to watch it online, visit: Breast Cancer Trials