During a normal visit to her parents’ Strathmerton farm with her sisters 22 years ago, some girl talk led to a shock discovery for Gordana Vukelic.
“Mum said, ‘have you girls been checked for lumps in your breasts?’” Gordana said.
“We were all feeling and I noticed one big lump and one little lump in my right breast.” One week later, Gordana was lying in a hospital bed with a diagnosis of stage one, grade three breast cancer.
“I told the doctor to take both (breasts) off but they didn’t want to get rid of a perfectly good one,” she said. After an operation to remove the cancer and six weeks of chemotherapy, Gordana was sent to Melbourne for intensive radiation therapy.
For three months while she stayed in Melbourne, Gordana had to leave her threeyear-old son Stefan with her parents.
“I had nobody in Melbourne. I used to ring home every day,” she said.
“It was very hard. Stefan would visit with my parents once a fortnight and he’d tell me he didn’t want to go home and he wanted to stay with me.”
There were some moments when Gordana simply needed to have a good cry. However, most of the time her positivity triumphed.
“I brightened up the place (Melbourne hospital) by telling the women there to be positive,” she said.
“I had to be positive before it beat me.”
Yearly check-ups had been clear for almost two decades but just four years ago, 19 years after her first diagnosis, a routine mammogram revealed that the cancer had returned to her right breast.
“There was a tiny spot on my breast and they (doctors) thought it was just a cyst at first,” Gordana said.
“I had a bad feeling it was cancer. “I broke down.”
Since the cancer had returned a second time, Gordana was advised to have a mastectomy and a subsequent breast reconstruction.
Unfortunately, complications arose with the expander that was inserted and an infection meant that Gordana needed to be flown to Melbourne for emergency treatment and recovery in intensive care.
“After that, I went to a specialist who said they could take some of my stomach fat to do the reconstruction, but I thought about it hard and decided I didn’t want to,” she said.
“I had had enough of operations. “I’m not worried about it. I mean, I’d like to have a breast there. I just didn’t want to go under the knife again.”
Instead of the reconstruction, Gordana has been purchasing special bras with inserts in the right side. Just two years ago, Gordana had another curve ball thrown at her when she was diagnosed with a new illness — bowel cancer.
The operation and chemotherapy that followed was not new, however, and she took it all in her stride.
“I had to be here because of my son. He was my rock. He pulled me through,” Gordana said.
While it has been a tough road for the single mother, Gordana, now 58, was grateful to her parents, who have since passed on, and a close friend for their constant support.
“I didn’t have any friends who had gone through it,” she said.
“It was hard to tell them about it because they don’t really understand what you’re going through. But when I needed to talk I used to go to my good friend Vera.
“I’m still here to talk about it.” Just like her mother, Gordana urges women to be proactive.
“Go early to see your doctor and have yourself checked,” she said. “It can happen to anyone.”