A mother diagnosed with cancer at 43 despite never feeling a lump in her chest has shared a candid picture taken with her daughter after she started chemotherapy.
Kassandra Behrendt, 55, from Brisbane, Queensland, was devastated after a mammogram found the cancer cells had spread outside of her breast – as the lumps were not detectable by a ‘hands-on’ examination.
She underwent a major surgery to completely remove her breast and a few lymph nodes – but after the results came back, she had to get another procedure to get rid of more cancer cells under her armpit in November 2007.
Following gruelling rounds of chemotherapy and radiation treatments, the Brisbane mother-of-one received a phone call on her 44th birthday on December 17 confirming she was all-clear of cancer.
It’s a bittersweet day she’ll never forget, and one she remembered in years gone by.
Kassandra Behrendt shared a candid throwback picture, taken in February 2008, of her six-year-old daughter Samara painting her face during her chemotherapy after the loss of her hair
Every year on December 17, Ms Behrendt said she finds herself reflecting on a day she should be full of happiness and joy on her birthday.
But instead the businesswoman was filled with ‘sadness, hopelessness and palpable fear’ after she was tragically diagnosed with stage three breast cancer 12 years ago.
‘I woke up that day despondent, listless, mourning the loss of my breast and scared to death. The constant fear that I would die and leave my husband Greg, my six-year-old daughter to fend on their own gripped my heart relentlessly,’ she said.
As she’s set to turn 56 on Tuesday, the jewellery designer shared a bittersweet picture, taken in February 2008, of her daughter Samara, then aged six, painting her face after she loss all her hair during chemotherapy.
‘Greg and I wanted to make light of my illness so as not to frighten Samara. During chemotherapy after the loss of my hair, she loved painting my head in rainbow colours. And so I would sit and let her play. What an artist,’ Ms Behrendt said.
‘So when it’s my birthday I celebrate life! I am grateful to be here. I am grateful every day that I can experience, feel, see, love, share, learn, teach, inspire and yes even feel pain and experience betrayal.’
The mother with her daughter Samara and husband Greg taken at her 45th ‘still alive’ birthday party in December 2008 – one year after she was tragically diagnosed with breast cancer
What are the key signs of breast cancer?
Breast cancer is the most common cancer affecting Australian women.
Symptoms depend on where a tumour is, how big it is and how quickly it is growing. Some people will have no symptoms and breast cancer will be detected during a mammogram.
Main symptoms of breast cancer are:
- Breast lump is often the first symptom of breast cancer. Most lumps are benign (not cancerous)
- Changes in size or shape of breast – get to know the size, shape and feel of your breasts
- Changes to the skin including dimpling, a rash or puckering of the breast
- Changes to a nipple such as turning in or just feeling different to usual
- Nipple discharge in a woman who is not pregnant or breast feeding
- Inflamed breast where your breast may look red or swollen. In addition, the breast may feel hard
- A red, scaly rash on the breast resembling eczema
- Although breast pain is common it is not normally associated with breast cancer
Source: Cancer Council
Ms Behrendt has a family history of breast cancer – after her mother tragically died at the age of 53 – when she was just 23 years old.
‘I always had in the back of my mind to have a mammogram but never got around to it. I was young and invincible,’ Ms Behrendt told Daily Mail Australia.
But after suffering her third miscarriage in late 2007, she decided a ‘full medical check-up on everything was needed’.
‘I feeling devastated so I decided that I really needed to look after myself for my husband and the one child that I already had,’ she said.
‘A mammogram was one of the boxes that I had to tick and then move on. However, tiny shadows were detected and I was called back for a breast biopsy.’
After getting a biopsy, the results revealed she had stage three breast cancer.
‘The breast cancer was not detectable by hands-on examination, but it had already spread outside my breast,’ she said.
Ms Behrendt said one of the biggest challenges during her cancer battle was ‘trying to be brave and strong through the first two initial breast surgeries’ so ‘my distress did not distress my husband and daughter’.
The mother said she suffered ‘horrible side effects’ of chemotherapy and radiation – and she had to wear a prosthetic breast inside her bra.
The doting mother with her beautiful daughter Samara. This picture was taken after her chemotherapy and radiation treatments were completed and her hair started to grow back
‘It wouldn’t stay in place and the constant itch because it rubbed against my chest. Not to mention that I felt hideous and couldn’t look at myself in the mirror,’ she said.
‘I mourned the loss of my breast, the loss of my femininity, I was angry, resentful. I felt ugly, I hated myself. I would hide away, withdrew from my husband, my daughter, my friends. Debilitating depression set in. I started to think of ways to kill myself.’
However on December 17, 2007, she received a phone call from her breast surgeon confirming her pathology results confirmed she had a ‘clear margin’.
‘In medical lingo that means that they have removed enough of me to ensure there were no cancer cells left in that area,’ she said.
‘However, that did not mean that some microscopic little cancer rascal didn’t make it out to another part of my body undetected.
‘Hence the chemotherapy, hence the radiation, hence the hormonal therapy, hence the constant fear that cancer would show up in another part of my body, hence the depression, hence suicidal thoughts, hence anti-depressant medication.’
She desperately turned to a psychologist for help after her life took a dark turn one morning in 2011.
‘I woke up and felt so exhausted from my internal dialogue of self-hatred that I decided I either killed myself already or I asked for help,’ she said.
‘I asked for help and was referred to a psychologist who was an incredible woman. I started taking anti-depressant medication and my road to recovery was set.’
Ms Behrendt pictured during her chemotherapy on the night her husband Greg took her out to dinner to ‘cheer me up’. ‘I had a fabulous blonde wig that I wore when in public. I was trying to hide my bold head you see. I also had to paint my own eyebrows – I laugh about it now’
The doting mother with her daughter Samara who’s now 17 years old
Now 12 years on, Ms Behrendt wanted to share the signs to look out for – as she urges women to get regular breast check-ups at Breast Screen Australia centres.
‘It isn’t always as easy as finding a lump in your breast or under your armpit. It could be like my breast cancer, undetectable by hand,’ she said.
‘My mother died of breast cancer but I do not have the breast cancer gene and yet I was diagnosed with the same disease. I always advise my girlfriends to have regular mammograms whether they have a history of breast cancer in the family or not.’
By sharing her story, the breast cancer survivor wanted other people to draw hope from her experiences.
‘My birthday is coming up and I’ve been thinking a lot about… what have I achieved in the past year? I know that I am a role model for my daughter so I want to set a good example and I want her to be proud of me,’ Ms Behrendt said.
‘I’ve been hearing a lot about how we each have a story inside us, we may feel that it is not worthy but we have an obligation to share our story with the world… even if we could inspire one woman, it is worth sharing.
‘So I decided to share my story and what I have learned on my journey. I wanted to tell everyone that despite what you have been through, despite what you are going through, life is precious, you are here, don’t waste it, make the most of it, make time for your family, surround yourself with people that lift you up rather than drag you down.
‘Seek help when you need it, never be ashamed of who you are. Learn, grow. Help others, be kind, and be grateful for every single day.’
For confidential support, please call LifeLine Australia on 13 11 14.