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Miracle mum: ‘A WATCH found my cancer’

Incredible
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An incredible turn of events saved Joanna Atzori’s life. Here, Joanna, 42, from Maroochydore, Qld, tells the story in her own words.

It’s always annoying when something gets broken, especially when that something is a $550 Garmin watch.

‘I’ll have to replace it,’ I sighed after my 10-year-old son, Roberto, accidentally knocked it off the kitchen bench, cracking the screen.

My husband, Alex, had given it to me a year before, when, turning 40, I’d decided to take up running and try a marathon.

It recorded my heart rate and showed my fitness progress, so I wanted another for whenever I ran.

As luck would have it, my AIA life insurance membership involved a rewards program, where members were entitled to discounts and vouchers for completing a series of regular health checks.

The shopping vouchers could help pay for a new watch! I thought.

I’d already done the easy stuff such as the dental and eye test, but, looking into it, I saw that

I could have a breast screening check and receive 1000 points.

Initially, I thought I’d have to be in my 50s to be eligible but, reading the fine print, I saw that at 41, I was in the age range.

My Garmin was smashed.
My Garmin was smashed. (Credit: Supplied)

‘Not that I have anything to worry about,’ I told Alex.

With no bumps or lumps on my breasts, and being so young, this check-up really was just about ticking a box so I got my free vouchers!

In March 2019, I popped in for the mammogram on my day off work.

It was very simple, but the sonographer stopped me at the end.

‘Don’t worry if you get a call back,’ she told me. ‘After the first screen, lots of women get one.’

Frowning, I hadn’t been worried but suddenly, the claws of anxiety started to take hold.

Why would I need a call back? I wondered.

So when I got that call two weeks later, I wasn’t surprised but the follow-up appointment was far from pleasant.

‘There’s something in your right breast we need to check,’ I was told.

They took a biopsy and I had a tense week-long wait for my results.

‘I just wanted a free Garmin and now look where I am,’ I fretted to Alex.

He came with me to get the results and as we walked in, I saw two breast cancer nurses.

That is not a good sign, I thought – and I was right.

‘Your entire right breast is full of cancer,’ one said, explaining I had ductal carcinoma which is a cancer in the milk ducts – totally unnoticeable.

Normally, it’s contained there, but mine had already escaped and was in my lymph nodes.

The mammogram films showing the cancer.
The mammogram films showing the cancer. (Credit: Supplied)

I listened, wide-eyed and terrified until she spoke her golden words.

‘It is early stage and treatable,’ she smiled. ‘You’re very lucky. At this stage you could never have known, as there’s nothing to see or feel, but in six to 12 months there may have been a lump or soreness and by that stage it would have been advanced. We’d be having a very different conversation.’

I didn’t feel immediately lucky but, as we drove home and I prepared to tell my family, it started to sink in.

As I sat Roberto down and explained it all, I was able to reassure him,
like the doctors had reassured me.

‘I’m going to be okay, mate,’ I said, suddenly realising the significance of him breaking my Garmin.

If that hadn’t happened, I’d never have had the breast screen at this early stage.

Five days later, I was preparing to have a mastectomy on my right breast.

‘It’s a dud, it’s got to go,’ the surgeon said with clinical practicality.

My first night as a 'uniboober' after my mastectomy.
My first night as a ‘uniboober’ after my mastectomy. (Credit: Supplied)

Afterwards, I needed five months of chemotherapy and radiation to attack any cancer cells that had spread.

It was all so overwhelming.

I’d gone from being a healthy, working mum to having life-saving surgery in the space of a week.

‘I don’t want to look at it,’ I told Alex tearfully as he gently helped me shower after the op.

‘It looks fine,’ he said, supporting me so wonderfully both physically and emotionally.

Wonderful Alex and me.
Wonderful Alex and me. (Credit: Supplied)
Roberto and me.
Roberto and me. (Credit: Supplied)

It took a few days until I could bring myself to look.

Used to my size-E cups, it was a massive change.

But, as with the whole situation, I had to learn to accept it and even feel lucky to be where I was instead of where I could have been.

The promise of those shopping vouchers could well have saved my life.

After nine months off work, I returned in February this year, battle-scarred but well and truly alive. I was cancer clear although very aware of potential recurrence.

That’s been the hardest thing, mentally, but it’s also made me very grateful for all the screening tests available out there.

Me, one year after my surgery.
Me, one year after my surgery. (Credit: Jaya McIntyre)
Joanna Atzori
(Credit: Jaya McIntyre)

Sharing my story, I want to make everyone else aware of those tests too.

I didn’t know that from age 40 in Australia and 45 in NZ, all women are eligible for a free mammogram.

Initially, my motivation for getting one was for a free watch but in future that motivation will be far less superficial.

I just want to have a longer life.

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