Carole Manifold couldn’t believe how unlucky she was to be diagnosed with breast cancer for the second time in 20 years
But it turned out luck, or lack of it, didn’t have anything do do with it – tests showed that she carried the BRCA2 gene. “There was nothing going to stop it happening a second time,” the Camperdown breast care nurse said. Doctors were suspicious when they looked at Carole’s history: she didn’t drink or smoke, had breastfed all five of her children for 12 months and was doing 22 exercise classes a week.
Being told she had the BRCA gene brought a sense for relief for Carole. “You think you’re doing everything right, it doesn’t make a difference. It’s so much better when you know,’ she said. “The only thing I’d heard about the BRCA gene was Angelina Jolie having her breasts off because her mother had this gene. “To me it meant nothing until suddenly I thought ‘I’ve got the same gene as her mum’.
“My mother had no history of breast cancer, but I never knew my father and that’s where the gene must have come from.”
When Federal Minister for Health Greg Hunt announced on November 1 that people with a history of breast and ovarian cancer would have free access to Medicare rebates for BRCA1 and BRCA2 testing, Carole was invited down to Melbourne for the launch and told her story on national TV. The announcement also meant close relatives of women found to have the mutations would also be eligible for the tests which had previously cost between $600 and $2000.
“Who’s got that much in their back pocket for a blood test,” Carole said. She said 10 per cent of women with breast cancer, and 15 per cent of women with ovarian cancer, have the gene. That why when she found out she had the gene she had her ovaries and tubes removed. “They said had there been any cells floating around in my body, that’s where they were going to go,” she said.
“I haven’t got much left inside now, or on the outside either,” she said with a laugh, her sense of humour and air of positivity shining through despite the ordeal she has been through. “I’m doing everything they told me,” she said.
For Carole that meant returning to teaching 18 Pilates and aqua aerobics classes each week in Camperdown, Lismore, Derrinallum, Mortlake and Cobden. It was teaching those exercise classes that probably saved her life.
At 52, Carole had been having regular mammograms only because her exercise class had been taking a busload of women to Warrnambool every year for testing, and she was encouraged to have one, even though she didn’t think she needed one. After all, she hadn’t noticed any lumps.
“I just jumped on the bus one day. Thank God I did,” she said. When the news came in 1997 that she had breast cancer, Carole said she “couldn’t get it off quick enough”. “If I’d known what I know now I would have had them both off.
“I had to have chemo in Geelong. I was so sick 20 years ago, I wanted to die. This time I made cakes,” she said of her treatment when she when she was diagnosed again in late 2016. “I had my chemo in Warrnambool and the girls would say ‘there’s an order for 22 more cakes, you’re going to have to be back next week for more chemo, can you bring the cakes with you?’.
“I’d lie on the bed there and think ‘I’m going to be be sick’ and then think ‘Carole, pull yourself together’ and I’d get up and make cakes in the afternoon and that’s how I got through it. There’s no way, if you’d have paid me, I could have made cakes 20 years ago, that’s the difference.”
Her fruit cakes are so popular that she has sold more than 200 and made over $3000 since October for Warrnambool’s cancer centre, taking the total over the past five years to in excess of $10,000.
She will regularly arrive home and find eggs and fruit on her doorstep which she uses to make up to six cakes at a time in her oven.
Not only did she bake cakes during her last battle with breast cancer, but she continued to run her exercise classes – a photo on the wall at the pool features Carole, minus her hair, teaching a class. “I don’t have breasts anymore,” she said. “I never wear a bra. I’ve just got two scars, that’s all and it’s just me.”
Carole was 72 when she was diagnosed the second time and had to pay for the mammogram herself because the free breast screening only applies to women between 50 and 69. She said she knew of women who had been diagnosed with breast cancer in their late 80s and early 90s.
Despite being told her prognosis wasn’t good, Carole is now in remission and is participating in a research project into the gene. Her five children have been tested. Her two daughters had made up their mind that they would remove their breasts if they tested positive – but the test came back negative. Not so for Carole’s two sons.
One of her son’s has three daughters and Carole has taken them to Melbourne to talk to a professor about what their future may hold. “It’s not to say my granddaughters are positive, but when they’re 25 they can go and have the tests done,” she said.
She said doctors would now keep a close eye on her sons for prostate, testicular and breast cancer.
Carole said she would do anything to promote Warrnambool’s cancer centre, which has made a huge difference to her patients and her own treatment this time around.
She just wishes it was there when her husband Roger battled kidney cancer 10 years ago. He passed away on Christmas Day 2007 after a 10-month battle, and his diagnosis turned their whole lives upside down. “We didn’t have Warrnambool for chemo and radiotherapy. We had to move,” she said. “I had to give up my classes, give up my nursing and I had to live in Melbourne for three months while Roger went to Peter Mac.
“We battled all the time down there. The kidneys are the filter for the body and of course it just went everywhere.
“That’s why I’m so passionate about the cancer centre because my patients had to go to Ballarat, Melbourne or Geelong to have radiotherapy, but now the cars come and pick them up and take them to Warrnambool and they’re home by lunch time.”
Roger never made it back to work on their 2000-acre sheep and cropping farm on the Milangil Homestead – a property that had been built for Roger’s grandparents as a wedding present. “Some people get toasters and that, they got a homestead. In the fireplace it has their initials engraved,” Carole said.
There was nothing going to stop it happening a second timeCarole Manifold
Christmas Days are hard. “The girls won’t send me ‘Happy Christmas’ or ‘Merry Christmas’, just ‘we’re thinking of you Carole’,” she said. “We were all there with him when he passed away at home. Sixty-four was far too young to die and he’d worked so hard all his life. He just came home with the pain in his back, that was the only indication. He just loved life.”