Donna Rullo is 50 years old and lives on a 120-acre fruit farm in Swan Hill, Victoria. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in March 2001 and, after undergoing 12 months of treatment, has been in remission for seven years.
Breast cancer isn't a single disease - but how many of us know that?
When I was diagnosed with early breast cancer in 2001, something my doctor said stood out: 'Your cancer is HER2-positive.' HER2-positive breast cancer affects 20-30 per cent of women with breast cancer but I hadn't even heard of it. I immediately started gathering information about 'HER2', determined to find out what it meant for my outlook and treatment plan.
I found out that a diagnosis of HER2-positive breast cancer demands special and immediate attention because of its aggressive and fast-growing nature, and the high risk for tumours to recur. To be told you have a disease so aggressive in comparison with other breast cancers is a shock that touches the lives of everyone around you.
When I heard about an Australian oncologist participating in one of the world's largest breast cancer trials ever carried out, and which was investigating a therapy for my specific type of cancer, HER2-positive, I drove five hours to Melbourne to meet him and find out more. After hearing about the trial, I committed myself to participating in it. I was adamant that this disease would not disrupt our normal lives. I wanted my husband to be able to keep running the farm and for my 13-year-old son to enjoy his first year at secondary school.
Every week for three months I rang the oncologist involved in the trial for an update, and I didn't stop (I couldn't stop) until he rang me with incredible news ... I was going to be the first patient in the world to participate in the landmark trial which has since involved over 5,000 patients. Me - Donna Rullo from regional Victoria!
When you're first diagnosed with breast cancer, it's hard to imagine that the experience can turn out to be positive. I can remember the early days when I was losing my hair from chemotherapy - my mother, who has Alzheimer's, would ask me why I had such a silly haircut and why was I lying down whilst my sisters were cooking for me and cleaning my house. I never thought I'd laugh at that, but I can now. For the last seven years I've lived my life by a different set of criteria, and it's made me a happier, healthier person. It's helped my family too.
My advice to other women diagnosed with breast cancer - find out as much as you can about your type of disease at the start, especially your HER2 status, regardless of your age or the size of your tumour. For me, knowing my HER2 status helped to determine the treatment option that would give me the best chance of survival. So, keep yourself informed, stay positive, listen to advice, but remember that you are an individual who may have different needs, so don't be scared to ask.