Cancer and Tobacco Control Women's Health

Daughter gives mom strength to keep fighting

Written by Wilma Stassen

When single mum Colleen Arumugam was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer, her young daughter became her rock.

Colleen 14With a family history of cancer, Arumugam feared the worst when she found a painful lump in her breast in November 2011. A mammogram, ultrasound and biopsy confirmed her worst fears and she was diagnosed with HER2-positive breast cancer in early December.

According to the US-based Mayo Clinic, HER2-positive breast cancer is a cancer that tests positive for a protein called human epidermal growth factor receptor 2 (HER2), which promotes cancer cells’s growth. Usually more aggressive than other forms of breast cancer, HER2-positive breast cancer is also less responsive to hormone treatment but can be treated with specific drugs like Trastuzumab that is often used in combination with chemotherapy.

The five-year survival rate for women diagnosed with the cancer is 80 percent.

To fight the cancer, Arumugam underwent weeks of chemotherapy, radiation and a double mastectomy to remove both breasts. She tried to prepare herself as much as she could for some of the side effects to come.

“What mattered to me was having some control over the process,” says Arumugam, who cut her hair short before treatment started so that she did not have to see it fall out with chemotherapy.

Throughout her treatment, Colleen experienced body pains, hot flashes, mouth sores and severe itch attacks. Her veins started shrinking as her treatment progressed, and at one point the chemotherapy leaked from her veins, causing tissue damage.

“There were days when I thought I was not going to survive the chemo,” she remembers.

Arumugam lives alone with her seven-year-old daughter, Mireya. During treatment, she says she relied heavily on friends and family, especially Mireya. Mireya had started grade one just two days before her mother’s first chemotherapy session.

“My little angel tried and still tries to do everything she can for me,” Arumugam says. “She used to make me a chemo care package that I was only allowed to open when I got to the hospital.”

Mireya also helped her mother with everyday tasks that Arumugam could not longer manage alone.

“She would help me bath when I couldn’t stand or support myself,” Arumugam adds. “She would have my pyjamas laid out for me and help me dress.”

“Most importantly, when I did break down and came close to giving up, she held my hand and assured me that I would make it,” she says.

After her final chemotherapy treatment, Arumugam had a double mastectomy in late July 2012. This was followed up by seven weeks of radiation. Now in remission, she will continue taking drugs, or oral chemotherapy, for the next five years to make sure she stays cancer free.

“I’m glad the worst is behind me,” says Arumugam, who has also started exploring reconstructive breast surgery however she is unsure if her radiated skin will stretch to accommodate new breasts.

“My breasts did not make me a woman… (they) just helped make my clothes fit better,” she jokes. “If (the surgery) doesn’t work out, then I’m fine with that.”

Arumugam says she is now focused on getting better and has become an ambassador for a cancer awareness campaign run by pharmaceutical company Roche.

“I am still trying to find that perfect balance where I know who I am after cancer and where I am headed,” she says.

During treatment, chemotherapy sometimes left Arumugam too weak to cook. Supper for mother and daughter was sometimes just Marie biscuits and tea. Now, Arumugam is able to get back to taking care of her daughter like she used to.

“I survived cancer because I have someone special to live for,” Arumugam said. “My daughter’s touch and smile were my most significant treatments, far outreaching the impact of any drugs.” – Health-e News Service.

About the author

Wilma Stassen

Wilma Stassen is a reporter at Health-e News Service. She focuses on non-communicable diseases. Follow her on Twitter @Lawim