As cancer strikes for a third time, high-profile couple Jane and Glenn McGrath look for the roses among the thorns. Faith Williams looks at what the couple are saying-and doing-about their troubles.
It is nine years since Jane McGrath was first diagnosed with breast cancer.
And while the initial diagnosis was devastating, to say the least, the second and now third relapses (announced in February) continue to shake the lives of the McGrath family and all those close to them.
Both Jane and Glenn were recently guests on Andrew Denton’s Enough Rope, where they spoke very openly about what they’ve been through and where they are now. We can clearly see that even in the face of this latest challenge there is a tenacity of will so clearly exhibited by both Jane and Glenn that demands admiration.
It was 1997 when Jane first noticed an abnormality in her left breast.
“We’d been on the Ashes tour, and I’d got out of the shower one morning, and I was combing my hair, and I thought something wasn’t right about the shape of my left breast. Instead of being curved underneath, it appeared to flatten. And I felt and felt and did everything you’re supposed to do, and in the end, it was really sore and hurting, and I thought, It can’t be cancer, because cancer doesn’t hurt.”
After checking with her husband, Glenn, who, in true male fashion, commented that her breast “looks all right to me,” she tried to forget about it. However, at the end of the tour when they’d returned home, Jane spoke with a nurse friend and asked her to check her breast.
Her friend’s response was clear. “Oh, Jane, there’s a definite lump there. I can feel it. You need to get to a doctor.”
On seeing the doctor, it was suggested that the lump could have just been a fibroid adenoma and nothing to worry about. However, in her continued uneasiness, Jane spoke with her mum, who had been diagnosed with breast cancer just before her 50th birthday. She insisted that Jane go and get a mammogram.
The mammogram and ultrasound showed a definite lump and the needle biopsy confirmed the lump was cancer. It was at this point that Jane felt completely out of control. “I think once you tell someone—going to the doctor—it kind of sets the wheels in motion. You can’t ignore that lump any longer. Something has to be done about it. I was so frightened. I was just swept along on this emotional roller-coaster—fear mainly.”
From that point on Jane described her life as consisting of one appointment after another and in the midst of this, she had to decide whether or not to have a mastectomy. Even with doctors’ warnings that the mastectomy was her only option, Jane was extremely reluctant to go through with it. She thought to herself, I can’t lose my breast. I’m only 31! And with that, she told the doctors she’d rather die than go through an operation.
Despite her apparent resolution on this matter, her mind was soon changed and the mastectomy was performed.
The condition was that she’d have her breast removed so long as she could have a reconstruction straight after. However, the relief that came after having the operation made the need for a new breast somehow less important. It was five years before the breast reconstruction was performed and in that time Jane had two children and breastfed them both.
“I was pretty proud of myself. I thought, I breastfed both of them, and that is, after all, what breasts are for.”
Perhaps one of the hardest realities for any woman experiencing the trauma of breast cancer and undergoing a mastectomy, is the feeling of a loss of womanhood and femininity. This blow to the self-esteem impacts everyone involved, not just the woman.
Prior to the operation, Jane was adamant that Glenn would never see the scar. “He’s not going to see it. I’ll only look at it when I have to, so he’s not going to see it,” she told her doctor.
However, despite Jane’s protestations, when asked if he’d like to see it, Glenn of course said yes. “And so, there was the— you know, the great unravelling, and it wasn’t too bad.” The emotional turmoil that must inevitably be experienced by a cancer victim’s spouse can only be described as extreme.
With his high profile job and the constant media attention Glenn receives as a member of the Australian cricket team, trying to appear calm, composed and focused at all times has on occasion proved to be difficult.
There have been moments on the field where Glenn has “snapped” due to the stress associated with Jane’s condition.
On these occasions, one in particular, Glenn apologised for his apparent overreaction without ever trying to give justification for his behaviour. His desire to maintain an unaffected air, both in Jane’s eyes and those of his audience, was very important to him. “I felt that if I said that [Jane’s condition] was the reason, I was using that as an excuse for why [I snapped].”
A couple of years after being given the all-clear for the breast cancer, Jane was diagnosed with secondary cancer. “It was probably easier for me the second time” she explained. “I’d had this pain in my hip for a couple of months but I was so sure that it wouldn’t be cancer. It never entered my mind that it could be cancer, so I put up with the pain. It steadily got worse and worse. In the end the pain was so severe I couldn’t even get out of bed. I couldn’t walk.” Eventually, “X-rays showed a ‘suspicious’ area in my hip.” She underwent a bone biopsy, which confirmed the bone cancer. “My first thought,” she told Denton, “was the children. It was that fear again … that fear of dying, I suppose, to put it bluntly—that was it. I just could not believe it.” During this time, Glenn was on his way to the West Indies. After finding out all the facts, Jane tracked him down.
“When Jane told me what happened, it was the last thing I was expecting, you know, with it being six years previously, everything clear,” said Glenn. “And then, when she told me the cancer was back … this time, I think I knew too much information, whereas before I was quite naive and thought, Yep, that’s fine, we’ll beat it no problems at all. [This time, it] knocked me around a bit.” When asked if they ever talked about death, Jane’s response was simple: “Not an option… . There’s nothing, nothing I won’t do, try or be to beat it—nothing at all, so death isn’t an option for me.” It’s been 18 months since the secondary cancer was discovered and the radiotherapy worked eradicate it. With her last scan in November 2005, another spot appeared. Jane had no definite idea of what the exact situation was but both she and Glenn were “just dealing with it.” “Everybody has challenges in life and this is one of mine,” she said, “and I’ll rise to the challenge, though you sometimes feel that the bar’s getting higher and higher. But it’ll never be too high, so we’ll do whatever we can.” This includes radical changes to lifestyle, particularly diet. The whole family adopted a new eating regimen, which includes soy milk and organic fruit and vegetables.
4 Ways to increase your risk of Cancer
- Drink alcohol. Alcohol interferes with folate, contributing to DNA damage.
- Eat a lot of everything. Excess calories contribute to obesity, a known risk factor.
- Eat red, processed meats. They contain saturated fat and prouce potentially cancer-causing compounds when cooked at high temperature.
- Choose refined carbohydrates. These may trigger overproduction of insulin, which may promote cancer-cell growth
A rosy future?
As a result of Jane’s experiences with breast cancer, both she and Glenn established the McGrath Breast Cancer Foundation.
“The one thing Jane didn’t have when she was going through the first lot of breast cancer was the breast-care nurses at the Cancer Care Centre, that really make a difference,” said Glenn. “Initially we thought, if we could put on another one or two [nurses], that was our goal.
Then all of a sudden a lot of my sponsors also actually donated money toward it, and my major sponsor, New-Loan, actually donate money each time I get a wicket, and surprisingly enough, each time I score a run.” In terms of the impact all of this has had on their relationship, both Jane and Glenn are adamant that their love for each other has grown stronger rather than weakened. “I think that, to get through something like this,” said Glenn, “you really have to pull together, got to be there for each other.” Jane acknowledged that problems like they were facing could break people. “I guess it’s a true test of, I don’t know if character is the right word, but of who you are,” she said.
“I think that having something like cancer, although it’s been frightening and one of the worst things ever, it’s also been one of the best things ever, because … I don’t know. It all goes into making you the person you are, and for me, now, just to wake up in the morning—it doesn’t matter if it’s raining or the sun’s shining.”
“It really doesn’t matter, because every day’s a great day, you know? And it really is the simple things in life that count. And a lot of those things, people don’t even think about. They’re too busy rushing to get into the city or to get the kids ready for something. They don’t stop to smell the roses, I suppose,” said Jane. “And we do.”
3 Ways to lower you risk of Cancer
- Being physically active may be more important than body weight or body fat to your risk of breast cancer. Leslie Berstein, PhD, professor of preventive medicine and cancer researcher at the University of Southern California, said that in a study of postmenopausal women, those who exercised four hours per week saw their risk drop more than 50 per cent. Exercise offers benefits even after menopause by reducing ciculating oestrogen as well as body fat.
- Failing to limit adult weight gain may account for up to one-third of all breast cancers.Henery J Thompson, PhD, director of the Cancer Prevention Laboratory at Colorado State University, found that weight gain of more than 5kgs as an adult, along with getting less than 30 minutes of physical activity per day, is linked to increased risk of breast cancer.
- Eating protective foods together seems to boost their cancer-protective effects. John W Erdman, PhD, professor of nutrition as the University of Illinois, found that a diet consisting of fruit, vegetables, wholegrains and beans offered the greatest anticancer effect. “Supplements,” he added, “cannot provide the synergistic ac tion you get from whole foods.”