Very proud to share this story of my courageous mum. After publishing the story in New Idea magazine 15 years ago, I got a call from a woman saying ‘your mum saved my life’. She told me that her big dimpled smile and bravery in being photographed from the waist up after a double mastectomy (which back then hadn’t been done before) compelled her to check her breasts and when she did she discovered she had breast cancer and required immediate surgery. Mum went on to raise money and awareness as a speaker for the National Breast Cancer Foundation and was on a committee involving the introduction of testing for the BRCA gene.
Mum, who turns 80 this year, is happily married to John Coggan and they live together in Tweed Heads, NSW. She has five children, five grandchildren and went to Sydney University and later Oxford University as a mature age student. She now has a PHD. She still has a big dimpled smile. Wishing all of our brave and wonderful mothers a happy mother’s day.
It’s not often you ask your mum to pose naked for a photo shoot.
But there was method to my madness – to raise awareness about breast cancer. Besides I knew my mum – Dr Jacqueline Kerr – was brave enough to agree because as a survivor of breast cancer herself she understands more than most how lives can be saved if women are encouraged to regularly check their breasts.
My mother was first diagnosed with breast cancer when she was aged 50 and again when she was in her early 60s. As a result, she had a double mastectomy and like so many women, she was also diagnosed with lymphedema – a condition caused from impaired flow of the lymphatic system which has led to painful swelling of her arms.
Back in 2005, I had never seen any photo of a woman revealing her breast cancer scars. I knew that sharing my mum’s story would show that women like her can remain strong, resilient and still feel feminine. After the story was published, I received a call from a woman who told me that my mum’s story saved her life.
Mum and I were also interviewed by Melissa Doyle for Sunrise and later mum was invited by the NBCF to join the Speakers Bureau and Consumer Advisory Group and has subsequently spoken at numerous fundraising events.
“Having survived breast cancer more than once I am passionate about raising awareness and funds for cancer research,” says Mum. “Not only will this assist NBCF achieve its aim to find a cure for breast cancer by 2030, it will eliminate the potential of serving a life sentence of lymphedema resulting from breast cancer which, having advanced lymphedema myself makes working with NBCF even more personal.”
NBCF’s research and fundraising has raised $162 million for 514 life-changing research projects in Australia, and is funded entirely by the Australian public. Survival rates have increased significantly since its inception in 1994 (the five-year survival rate for breast cancer has gone from 76% to 91%).
Here, I would like to share my mum’s story in her own words.
A MOTHER’S COURAGE: DR JACQUELINE KERR’S STORY IN HER OWN WORDS
I have had both breast removed. My first diagnosis was in 1992 – two years before the NBC Foundation was formed. Since then millions of dollars have been raised to fund research. Not only does this save the lives of many women, it helps decrease pain and suffering. By the time I had my second mastectomy things had changed dramatically. The latest research shows that eight out of 10 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer before they are 80-years-old and it is the largest cause of deaths in Australian women. I imagine that many of you reading this have either been touched by or know someone with breast cancer.
My eldest daughter Robyn was a magazine editor and shortly after my second mastectomy I was telling her about the number of women who have never shown their scars to their husband’s. Knowing me as she does she saw an opportunity for an article to show women that they can still be feminine. I have to say it was a bit risqué and the next thing I knew I was posing for what can only be described as a centrefold for the magazine.
In an interview on Sunrise I remember saying to Mel Doyle we are more than our breasts. While this is true, I have to admit they are still a vital part of our bodies.
I am happy to say that the article saved a number of women’s lives and I was fortunate enough to meet one of the women who recognised similar symptoms and went to see her doctor. She was admitted immediately and underwent a radical mastectomy followed by six months of chemotherapy. Apparently they operated in the nick of time and she is now looking forward to a new grandchild.
When I showed the article to my 87-year-old father, he was a bit taken aback.
“Err …. Jacqueline you have no clothes on,” he said.“Well you should see the Playboy edition,” I replied.
Like many challenges in life there’s always a positive …
The cancer did spread to other places and by the time I had the second mastectomy I simply thought well now my body is back in balance. No more wondering if one breast was higher than the other, no more prosthesis falling out of my bra, once landing on the deck of a yacht in the middle of Lake Como … there’s a conversation starter let me tell you. I could even change size, Dolly Parton, or Twiggy depending on the clothes. I mean why should men have all the fun?
I was unable to have reconstruction surgery because at the time it was not discussed and the extent of my surgery prevented it.
I made up my mind then and there not to let anything get me down and I didn’t. Instead I made every day mean something. When four burly doctors came into my room to talk about my choice of chemo drugs and prognosis which wasn’t very good, all I could say was ‘Do whatever you want just bring in a fridge, stock it with gin, champagne, oysters and beer.’ I even sent home for my Waterford crystal, doona and frilly bed linen and feather pillows. I needed to introduce some positive energy.
My family arrived from all over the world and I became the centre of attention which I have to admit I loved. Among my visitors were a few of my ex’s …… and I heard my kids devised a roster so they wouldn’t bump into each other. One day a young nurse came in and asked “which one is your husband?” to which I replied, “All of them.” She left looking confused but smiling and I wasn’t about to explain.
The lessons of my illness just seemed to keep coming and it wasn’t until I kept getting asked what was the secret of my recovery that I realised it is the LOVE you have and are given. And sheer stubbornness …
So, would I have cancer again? Hopefully No … What have I learned from having it? PLENTY. Is there a positive side? YES.
Every day I think how wonderful life is and how blessed I am. It is not so much THAT I survived … but WHY and that is because we have come so far with medical advancement. The most important message we need is that there is hope but without research we cannot find a cure and with funding we can. So in the end it is up to us to make a difference. Buying a wristband or pink ribbon we are all helping to fight this dreadful disease.
Find out more about the NBCF, and donate here.