TDHS Julie Harkin Breast Cancer Awareness Month

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month

The discovery of an ultimately harmless lump in her right breast in 2013 might have saved Julie Harkin’s life.

While the lump she had felt turned out to be a benign cyst, it was the catalyst for scans that unfortunately found a cancerous grade three (fast growing) lump Julie hadn’t detected.

Julie has been a nurse at Timboon and District Healthcare Service (TDHS) for 36 years, with the exception of 11 months in 2013/14 when she beat breast cancer.

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month and Julie said she was happy to share her story and help demonstrate how important regular mammograms are for women.

“My journey started on March 19, 2013 when I found a lump. It had been 18 months since my last mammogram so I went to get it checked out,” she said.

“I remember the lady feeling it and she thought it was gristle. Then I had the ultrasound and a young man said ‘I might go and just get the radiologist’. When he came and had a look, he asked me if I had breast cancer in the family…I thought ‘oh heck’.

“On April 11, two days after my 30th wedding anniversary, I had five little biopsies and four of those had cancer in them. The lump I found was nothing, they had found another one that none of us had felt.

“I was on shift when I got the call with the results. I took the call and I was numb…I rang and left a message for my husband Peter who was a Corangamite Shire Councillor at the time. He was in a Council meeting so he didn’t have his phone on.”

Julie said she went home and youngest son Ben was there, but she didn’t say anything.

“Peter came home and we cuddled and talked about it and I got up in the morning and went to work while he told Ben and rang our other children Matthew, Bridget and Sam,” she said.

“Nursing Unit Manager Michelle Selten knew, so when I got to work I asked her ‘if you had to have a mastectomy who would you get to do it?’. She went and asked Dr Brendan Mooney, who happened to be working in Theatre that day, and he said straight away Phil Gan at St John of God in Warrnambool.

“A few days later, I saw Mr Gan and he said, ‘right you’ll have a lumpectomy, a mastectomy, an axillary clearance of the lymph nodes and breast reconstruction if I wanted it.

“I was so positive about it. We were upset and everything of course, but I just thought I’m going to get over this and it’s not going to kill me.”

Julie said she opted not to undergo a reconstruction, but had the rest of the surgery a week later and a port put in for chemotherapy.

“Mr Gan said they took 14 lymph nodes out and seven had cancer…I remember saying ‘well that’s a pass’ and him saying ‘it’s not an exam Julie’.

“I started chemo on June 26 and did eight rounds – one round every three weeks.

“I lost my hair, had a metallic taste in my mouth all the time, I had mouth ulcers, I lost my toenails and was tired all the time. I continue to have numbness in my fingers, neuropathy in my feet and no strength in my arms.

“Then in December I went to Geelong for 10 minutes of radiation therapy every day for five weeks. They said I may not have needed it, but I wasn’t taking any chances.”

Julie said she was given the all clear and made a full recovery except for her lymphedema because she has no lymph nodes on her right side which causes swelling.

“My specialist Darlene Bourke helps me with that. It’s ongoing and always will be,” she said.

“I still enjoy working and love spending time with my three little grandchildren Sylvie, Maisy and Theo.”

TDHS has a Women’s Health Clinic, run by Amanda Nash, which can provide an initial breast check (how to detect) and also assist in taking action to improve your breast health (risk factors) and understanding. To make an appointment with Amanda, please call 5558 6000. General Practitioners at the Timboon Medical Clinic can also perform a breast check and organise a mammogram if deemed necessary. The Timboon Medical Clinic can be contacted on 5558 6088.
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