After being diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer at 39, mother of two Wilma La Greca underwent genetic testing and found that she carried the BRCA2 gene – a genetic mutation that had placed her at higher risk of cancer. Further tests revealed she had inherited the mutation from her father’s side of the family.
After having a double mastectomy and having her ovaries removed, Wilma decided life was indeed short. Her breast cancer journey inspired journeys of a different kind, with adventures to Italy, Turkey, Greece, Croatia and South America. There’s more travel on Wilma’s bucket list and to other women diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer she says simply, “Never stop hoping. Have faith. Cancer is just another illness you can get, like many others.”
I am a 49 year-old mother of two boys. I was married at 18. My boys are now 18 and 23, and I was divorced when my youngest turned two.
I was diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer in July 2007 – so it is almost 10 years. I knew absolutely nothing about cancer, let alone triple-negative breast cancer. I did not know there were different types of breast cancer – I thought there was only one type of breast cancer.
I work full time at the Australian Tax Office, but over the years I have been able to vary my hours to part time in order to have better work life balance. I took leave without pay for 10 months when I was sick, because doctors suggested it may be difficult to work with young kids while having treatment, especially because my boys were special needs with Asperger’s and ADHD. So, during this time I took advantage of not working and in between my treatment, I enjoyed going to the gym, walking, bike riding and tai chi. I wasn’t going to let cancer slow me down; I wanted to prove I could keep doing what I always did, plus more.
I did return to work, but after about three years I had to take another year off to nurse my mother, who was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.
It did get me thinking about whether my cancer was hereditary and I wanted to know. So I ended up having the genetic test. It turns out my BRCA2 gene ended up being from my father’s side of the family.
I had my ovaries removed first, as there was a high risk of ovarian cancer in the mid 40s age bracket and I was 45. The following year I had a double mastectomy. My sisters were found to also carry the gene, but they did not take preventative action. They do however have yearly MRI scans to be vigilant.
My grandmother on my Dad’s side died in her late 30s, when my Dad was just 14. At the time it was suspected peritonitis, but I actually feel that she might have had ovarian cancer.
I am more selfish. I think of myself more now, about the things I want to do. I set personal goals, not so much career goals, although I recently got promoted! I work to pay the bills and save for fun times.
I plan trips and lots of outings, dinners and weekends away with my friends. I also spend a lot of time with my 85 year-old Dad, who is still devastated at losing his wife (Mum) three and a half years ago.
The main thing is that now I have got the holiday bug, I just want to travel and see more of the world because I’ve realised life is short.
I am part of a dragon boat team called Dragons Abreast Melbourne known as DAM Busters. We are a breast cancer survivor team made up of different women of all ages, sizes, abilities and fitness levels. Being around all these women is fantastic – they are always so supportive. Speaking about our experiences made me aware there are different types of breast cancers.
I had a family friend Elisa from QLD who was diagnosed with breast cancer a few months before me. Before her, I had not really known anyone with cancer. We would talk openly about her treatment and I remember asking her about her chemo, because I didn’t know what chemo even was. I had no idea that I would be going through it myself just a few months later. Sadly, Elisa’s breast cancer metastasised. She passed away in November last year.
Before seeing what happened to her, I never did consider cancer coming back again. Now I know that’s not always the case. So, I thought, I am going to travel because you just never know.
My first trip overseas was when mum was terminal. I took her to Italy to see her brother and sisters as well as some tourist sites, and especially to Padua to see Saint Anthony, her favourite Saint. She died the following year.
When she was dying, I promised mum I would take her favourite sister-in-law some jewellery. So the following year, I visited my aunt in Italy to give her the ‘dying wish’ present. I took the boys; it was their first overseas trip. Italy was our last stop after visiting Turkey, the Greek Islands and Croatia. We were away for three months, and it was the best thing I ever did in my life. It was fabulous.
Then, last Christmas and over January this year my boys and I went to South America where I visited another of my Mum’s aunts who she wanted to visit before she died.
We stopped in Abu Dhabi for a few days, then stayed in San Paolo with relatives for the first time, then flew to Rio de Janeiro, Argentina and Peru; our highlight was completing a 4 day hike at Machu Picchu. It was amazing.
And next year, for my 50th birthday, I am planning a trip to Florence with Dragons Abreast but will probably also travel to Spain, Portugal, and Morocco with a group of girlfriends.
Never stop hoping. Be positive, and have faith. I believe cancer is just another illness – just something else you can get, like diabetes or heart disease. There are medicines and treatments so don’t think it’s the end of the world.
* Wilma shared her story in April 2017.