St John of God Berwick Hospital patient Jenine Ritchie has shared her story, full of wigs, colour and family, with us as a part of Breast Cancer Awareness Month and to highlight the importance for early detection.
Jenine’s initial diagnosis
When Jenine Ritchie was diagnosed with breast cancer in December last year, she immediately felt sadness and concern, but not for the reasons you’d expect.
“I was most upset that I wouldn’t be able to help my daughter move house because I was booked for breast surgery two days prior,” explains Jenine.
“She’s a single mum of my three eldest grandkids and I felt like I was letting her down and couldn’t be there for her when she needed me.”
Making others feel good has always come naturally to Jenine, who refers to a job she used to hold as the receptionist/bookkeeper for a psychology practice in Gippsland and how it would break her heart to see people coming in so sad and lost.
“I would always chat to them to make them feel comfortable. I was very proud to find out later that my kindness and caring manner would help patients arrive to their sessions more relaxed, with the ability to open up more freely to their counsellors. Perhaps I have the gift of caring for those who are suffering?”.
It’s a personality trait that she’s come to rely upon throughout the often dark days of dealing with a cancer diagnosis. Instead of dwelling on what was happening to her, Jenine focused on making the most of her situation and bringing light and humour to all those around her in the process.
“As soon as I knew I’d be facing chemo and radiation, I went to the party store and purchased 10 different wigs in all lengths, shades and styles,” she said.
“I wasn’t sure how my three youngest grandchildren would feel seeing their ‘Nan’ lose her hair so I decided, that perhaps every time we connected over FaceTime during lockdowns, I’d wear a different wig. It was not only a good distraction, but a way to make a scary situation lots of fun for them.”
Jenine pictured with her three youngest grandchildren.
Jenine’s treatment at St John of God Berwick Hospital
Since her first scheduled surgery on January 13 this year, that positive approach has seen Jenine through multiple procedures, six months of chemo, 20 rounds of radiation, six of her 18 scheduled treatments of Herceptin (a targeted drug used to treat HER2-positive breast cancer which Jenine will complete in July 2022), as well as partaking in an oncology rehab program.
Not one to burden herself, or her loved ones with worry, Jenine made it her mission to follow in the footsteps of her parents, who she describes as her inspiration to face the challenges of cancer head on and stay strong for those around her.
“My motto has always been ─ Don’t make yourself sick with worrying about something that may not happen. Deal with it if it does,” she said.
Jenine’s family history
Having seen both her parents battle cancer and unfortunately succumb to the disease, you could forgive Jenine for being a little scared of the journey that lay ahead of her.
“I remember visiting my dad in hospital, knowing things were not going so well and when I approached his bed with tears in my eyes, he growled at me and told me not to come into his hospital room looking for pity because he was the one going through this, not me. Then he told me to wipe my eyes and only bring smiles with me from that point on,” she said.
Crediting their determination to not give up and the incredible resilience to pain her mother always showed, Jenine believes it’s important to stay strong and maintain a positive frame of mind to aid the road to recovery.
“My mother walked around with a broken hip for eight months, suffering in silence, before it was discovered,” she said.
“Likewise with my mother’s breast cancer surgery, she refused any offer for pain relief afterward. It was only once the nursing staff said that she would need to take something to stabilise her temperature before she could go home, that she agreed to take it.”
Supporting others at St John of God Berwick Hospital
Strength, as well as support from her son, coupled with a self-proclaimed ‘twisted sense of humour’, saw Jenine arriving at St John of God Berwick Hospital for her many treatments and appointments dressed in the bright wigs and accessories that she’d initially used to interact with her grandchildren.
“As I sat in my oncologist’s waiting room, I witnessed long faces turn to joy and laughter would fill the room, and if there were ever a day I arrived without one on my head, the staff would express disappointment as they looked forward to seeing what new creation I’d have in store for everyone that week,” Jenine said.
“Many photos later, smiles shared and laughter had by all, I’d soon become known as the ‘wig lady’. And who knew that an impulse decision to visit the party shop would end up bringing so much sunshine and joy into what can be such dull days for so many?”
Jenine undergoing chemo with the support of her SGJBH oncology caregivers and McGrath Nurse, Liz Douglass (pictured far left)
Jenine pictured taking advantage of cold cap technology which can help to prevent or reduce hair loss for cancer patients. Unfortunately for Jenine her hair began to fall out after her first chemo session so she decided to embrace her baldness and rock her funky wigs instead.
Oncologist Esther Lin, agrees.
“From the outset, Jenine had a very positive approach to her diagnosis and treatment plan. She was honest with herself and with others, and brought a lot of humour into what could have been a dark space,” Esther explained. “Her positivity rubs off on everyone who comes across her cheerful self, and her strong determination is definitely helping her ongoing recovery.”
Early detection was life changing
Jenine acknowledges, however, that her prognosis has played a huge part in her ability to remain pragmatic and full of life.
“I may have had a whole different outlook had my cancer been life-threatening and the treatment I was to undergo, not precautionary in nature,” Jenine said, adding that early diagnosis is key to long-term survival.
“I can’t express enough, how early detection has made this whole experience far more bearable. I am one of the lucky ones,” she claims.
“I have been so relieved not to have been told I have a ‘set time left’ or that I have ‘stage 2, 3, 4 … whatever, cancer’. It means I have more effective treatment options available to me.”
Regular breast screening, mammograms and becoming ‘breast aware’ are important factors in detecting cancer early.
For Jenine, who has a history of breast cancer in her family with her mum, aunt and sister all having been affected by the disease, she receives regular notifications when the time comes for her biennial mammogram appointment.
With Covid-19, lockdowns and isolation common for much of 2020, Jenine delayed making the phone call to arrange a breast screen.
“Not having any symptoms that would suggest cancer was lurking, I didn’t feel the urgency to call, but then I realised that it was not something that should be avoided so I took the earliest screening time available which would occur two months later in December 2020,” she said.
Despite an itchy breast from time-to-time and a niggling pain in her shoulder blade, Jenine dismissed the signs as symptoms of post-menopause, psoriasis and not sleeping comfortably as a result of her apnoea machine.
After celebrating a ‘good looking’ mammogram result with her girlfriends, Jenine was shocked to learn a week later that her breast screen results would discover not one, but four lumps in the breast area.
“It was a gut wrenching time. When you hear the word ‘breast cancer’, the blood drains from your face.”
Fortunately for Jenine, of the four lumps found, only one was cancerous while the other three were deemed to be precancerous, and a treatment plan with a high expectancy of success was put in place going forward.
According to Liz Douglass, McGrath Breast Care Nurse at St John of God Berwick Hospital, “Even though most breast changes are not due to breast cancer, it is still really important to be breast aware and proactive with scheduling regular screens to ensure early detection is possible. If you do, however, notice any changes you should always seek advice from your GP.”.
“Remember we only have one life and if we don’t have regular mammograms to check that all is okay, the chance to fight this disease may be taken from us.”
Breast Cancer Awareness Month
As part of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, Jenine is sharing her story in hope that it will encourage others to take charge of their breast health.
“Even when there are no signs, I strongly recommend having a mammogram,” Jenine said.
“And if you do discover that you have early stage breast cancer, don’t worry, you will never be alone. It’s not until my world was turned upside down that I realised how loved I was and how the support of family, friends, work colleagues (past and present), as well as St John of God Berwick Hospital caregivers would make such a positive contribution to how I’d cope with my cancer diagnosis.”
Jenine (seated second from left) with her work colleagues who raised $2500 to buy her a wrought iron glider seat (among other gifts) so she could sit on her back verandah and enjoy the sunshine while she recovered from treatments. Four of her workmates also joined in on the World’s Greatest Shave in March this year, shaving their heads to raise $850 in honour of Jenine.
St John of God Berwick Hospital Nurse Unit Manager of Oncology Lisa Marchetti fondly recalls Jenine’s unique handling of her cancer experience.
“Jenine is a hoot. Most treatments she turns up in a coloured wig that changes regularly. She certainly is very upbeat and this obviously works for her,” Lisa said.
“While it’s great when this approach works, we must also recognise that for those whose cancer prognosis is poor, we must be careful not to send a message that they haven’t been positive enough.
“In saying that, Jenine’s story is a great one to share about the importance of early detection and how regular screening can lead to good outcomes. I admire her strength and courage, and the fun, laughter and smiles she brings with her are, nothing short of, infectious.”
St John of God Health Care offers a range of services for people diagnosed with breast cancer from surgery, chemotherapy, pain and symptom management, to pastoral care, outpatient groups for physical and emotional wellbeing and allied health support such as access to social workers, dietitians, case managers, occupational therapists, physiotherapists and pharmacists.
It even offers a free wig loan service for anyone suffering cancer-related hair loss in Melbourne’s south east region. More importantly, you don’t need to be a St John of God Berwick Hospital patient to access it.
It also prides itself on teaming up with the McGrath Foundation to provide free access to McGrath Breast Care Nurses who are specifically trained to provide physical, emotional and psychosocial support to people with breast cancer and their families. The nurses also play an important advocacy role to help people with breast cancer navigate through the complex and overwhelming challenge that lies ahead of them.
“If you do find yourself on the other end of a cancer diagnosis, I will be there to provide support and care from the time of detection, throughout treatment and beyond,” Liz said.
“I know this sounds silly but instead of being happy on the last day of my treatment, I was sad as these caregivers and patients helped maintain my sanity and were the reason for leaving the house every day,” Jenine said.
“It wasn’t the treatment but the friendships and being around the team at St John of God Berwick Hospital that gave me the strength I needed and the ability to keep a positive outlook throughout my cancer journey.”
To access the McGrath Breast Care Nurse service, simply visit the McGrath Foundation website (www.mcgrathfoundation.com.au) to find a nurse nearest to your postcode. No referral from a doctor is needed.
Jenine dressed up for her last day of chemo.
Jenine (yellow wig with green fascinator) and the team at GenesisCare (where she underwent her radiation therapy), joining in on the fun. Jenine is pictured here on her last day of treatment which ironically fell on this year’s Daffodil Day.
Jenine, upholding her ‘twisted sense of humour’, agrees to a ‘Dare’ to go out in public with her party wigs and accessories.