Two lower North Island sisters are battling the same type of breast cancer, two years after the young daughter of one of the sisters beat her own fight against a rare soft tissue cancer.
The sisters are speaking to the Herald on Sunday to raise awareness of breast cancer in young women and to encourage others to push back if they feel doctors are dismissing their concerns.
Feilding mum-of-two Hirane Paewai was the first of the sisters to be diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer, which was stage 3 with tumours in both breasts – one of which had grown to 8cm in size, in April.
The 32-year-old has since had six rounds of chemotherapy and, this week, a double mastectomy and the removal of some lymph nodes, with radiotherapy and more chemotherapy planned next year.
Her 34-year-old sister Teiria Paewai was diagnosed with the same type of breast cancer in July. She has also done six rounds of chemotherapy, with a decision on whether to remove her breasts awaiting the results this month of genetic testing – Teiria’s 9-year-old daughter Shakaiya is in remission from rhabdomyosarcoma, a rare cancer which forms in soft tissue and mostly affects children, and it is thought the trio may share a gene which makes them more susceptible to the disease.
Two of the sisters’ aunts, one on each side of the family, had also previously been diagnosed with cancer, with one dying of the disease.
In another blow for the family, the sisters’ 18-year-old niece Sharrisse Tuaiti Perawiti Taputerangituatea (also known as Sharrisse Perawiti) was of three teens killed when their car collided with a truck on State Highway 2 near Takapau on November 26.
It’s been a tough year, but she’s trying to stay positive, Teiria Paewai told the Herald.
After Shakaiya’s cancer diagnosis she’d supported her then-6-year-old daughter through 43 weeks of chemotherapy and around three dozen rounds of radiation over an 18-month period spent shuttling between Dannevirke, Palmerston North and Auckland.
“Her head basically lived in the spew bowl [during that time] … I’m just stoked it’s not her cancer back, or my son getting it.
“I just try my hardest to be positive, and be thankful I’m here.”
Her “heart breaks” for her sister though, who was diagnosed at a later stage than her and had a tough battle to get a diagnosis, Teiria Paewai said.
“I’m petrified for her, but I just take it one day at a time.”
Hirane Paewai first went to the doctor in October last year after finding lumps in her breasts.
She was given an ultrasound but told the lumps weren’t an issue and she was too young to have breast cancer, she said.
She was rescheduled for a check-up in three months and told to self-monitor the lumps and seek immediate medical advice if they changed.
After six weeks she discovered the lumps were changing and attempted to get an appointment, but it took a few weeks because of the Christmas rush.
A different doctor told her the lumps were fatty tissue, but she decided to seek a third opinion a few months later when the lumps continued to grow and began hurting more.
“When I lay down on the table, you could actually see one of the lumps through my clothes. The doctor took one look at me and said, ‘We need to get that biopsied straightaway’. Within that week I was told I had cancer.”
Her sister’s diagnosis prompted Teiria Paewai to herself get checked.
She’d previously sought help for breathing trouble, and been told it was probably stress-related, but when she felt a lump in the same area she went straight to the doctor.
Both women wanted to tell their story to raise awareness about breast cancer in young women, and to encourage women to keep pushing for a diagnosis if concerned.
Most of the more than 3300 women diagnosed with breast cancer in New Zealand each year are aged over 50, but about 400 are aged under 44, according to the Breast Cancer Foundation.
“Just don’t muck around,” Teiria Paewai said, when asked what she wanted to say to other women.
“And it doesn’t matter how young you are.”
The sisters also wanted to thank those who have been supporting them in the family’s latest health battle.
Hirane Paewai said her sister’s best friend, Jenna Montgomery, had been there “every step of Teiria’s diagnosis”, taking her to appointments and setting up a Givealittle page for the sisters.
“She’s been a godsend for my sister. And for me it’s Emma Doolan. Her, James and the girls at Emma Doolan Makeup have been making and delivering my kids and I meals every week since I was diagnosed.
“She’s been an incredible support to my whole family, making room to tattoo my sister’s brows before she started her treatment [and] therapist to my daughter during lash appointments. I can’t even express in words how much we all appreciate everything she’s done for us.”
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