Jodi Beattie's twin sister, Michelle McCormack, was in the shower when she felt a lump in her breast. They were 34, in good health and had no family history of breast cancer. A doctor’s visit and scan temporarily put Michelle’s fears to rest. But a couple of months later, with the lump still there, she began to worry.
"Your breasts can get lumpy and they go down," Jodi says. "But this one stayed there." Michelle was soon diagnosed with advanced-stage breast cancer.
When news of sister's diagnosis came, it did not occur to Jodi that she might have the same disease. "I was just concerned with her," Jodi says, "I was devastated by her diagnosis."
It was Michelle who, despite facing her own grave prognosis and an arduous regime of surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy, was concerned about her sister. "It was only when she, as gorgeous as she was, thinking about me, brought it up and asked her specialist 'Should my twin sister get checked?' "
After learning that Michelle had a twin and in light of the aggressiveness of Michelle's disease, Dr Daniel De Viana was on "high alert". He recommended that Jodi have annual mammograms, ultrasounds and even an MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) scan.
"Some people might say it’s a bit of overkill", Jodi says Dr De Viana told her, but she should "do it to have the peace of mind".
"He kept asking if I didn’t mind because I know it's very expensive … I was so grateful that we were able to get the money." A breast MRI can cost around $400 and an MRI with biopsy is up to $3000.
Less than two years later, as Jodi sat in hospital with Michelle who was now in the final stages of her disease, she received her own diagnosis. Her sister was lying unconscious in a hospital bed and, knowing that Jodi would be at the hospital with her, their shared specialist telephoned Michelle's room. He gave Jodi the news that her second MRI scan revealed a small area of cancer.
"That was really difficult," Jodi says. "Not so much to hear the news. I think I was feeling quite optimistic because it was early … Michelle didn’t have to know that I was going to go through, potentially, what she had just gone through.
"But just the timing and knowing everything that she went through … that was hard," she says.
Double mastectomy an easy decision
Michelle died two days later, just days before the pair celebrated their 37th birthdays and before she was able to marry her fiancée. A week after her funeral and on the day of their birthday, Jodi received what she describes as "a good birthday present" – she underwent a double mastectomy.
"For me, the decision was made before I even had the diagnosis," Jodi says.
"With my sister’s troubles, we often had discussions, she was incredible with her grace and courage all through hers … I said if something was found in me, I think that I would opt for both (breasts to be removed)."
Jodi and Michelle both wanted to be nurses from when they were children. Photo: Supplied
Speaking about her breasts now she says, "They’re definitely not the most comfortable because they’re numb … But I can’t complain compared to some of these women. I’ve got minimal scars. My surgeon did a wonderful job."
Jodi later underwent a complete hysterectomy and is cautiously optimistic about her future prospects. "Everything’s been cut out," she says. "All those little avenues of oestrogen have been taken away and it was oestrogen feeding my breast cancer." She admits that there is still some risk but counts herself as "one of the lucky ones".
"It's just so important that women realise it can happen to anyone."
Jodi doesn't believe the medical profession could have done any more for her sister, but she has become a fierce advocate for early detection and screening, even for young women with no family history of breast cancer.
"We put it in the back of our minds," she says. "We think it’s not going to happen to me.
"But I want young women to realise it really can happen. You need to take it that little bit more seriously."
She doesn't like to speculate on what could have been, but says of her sister's circumstances, "Maybe if she was checking her boobs earlier and more regularly, then things could have been addressed a lot quicker."
Michelle was "very unlucky it was a little bit bigger," she says. "I’m one of the lucky ones." And she thanks her twin sister for it.
Women in Super Mother's Day Classic
Jodi will this year participate in the Women in Super Mother's Day Classic, a fun run/walk that raises money for National Breast Cancer Foundation research. One of Australia's largest charity events, it takes place in all capital cities and dozens of other locations across the country.
Michelle took part in the event in 2011 whilst undergoing chemotherapy and rose close to $8000. Last year, Jodi wore the bridesmaid’s dress that she was supposed to wear at her sister’s wedding.
She will take part again on Sunday, May 11. The fundraising page for her team, Pink Puppies, can be found here.
To register, donate or volunteer go to www.mothersdayclassic.com.au.