Former St Matthew’s Collegiate student Amber Arkell,had a double mastectomy with immediate reconstruction at the age of 26. PHOTOS/SUPPLIED
By Hayley Gastmeier
A double mastectomy is not something any woman wants to experience, let alone a 26-year-old.
But that’s exactly what former St Matthew’s girl Amber Arkell has been through.
Now, two weeks following her major surgery which included immediate reconstruction, she says she’s “getting back to her old self” and feeling great.
“In your 20s you think you are 10-foot-tall and bulletproof and it just shows that no matter who you are cancer doesn’t discriminate,” she said.
Ms Arkell was diagnosed with breast cancer in December last year after finding a lump in her breast two months earlier.
For the past nine months Ms Arkell has faced a string of tests and challenges but now “through the storm”, she was looking forward to getting her career back on track, focusing on her relationship “and doing all the fun things that we used to do as a couple that this [cancer] has robbed from us”.
Ms Arkell, originally from Wellington, attended Opaki School and later St Matthew’s Collegiate, before moving to Palmerston North to gain a degree in communications.
Her parents and siblings still live in Masterton but Ms Arkell lives in Christchurch with her partner Kieran, who works for the New Zealand Defence Force.
Upon fining the lump in October, Ms Arkell underwent a mammogram, multiple ultrasounds and biopsies, and had a partial mastectomy.
When the cancer cells were analysed it was revealed the type of tumour had the potential to grow and spread rapidly.
“Often when young women in particular get diagnosed with breast cancer the cancer is more aggressive.”
But she said “cancer doesn’t mean you’re going to die, not with today’s treatments”.
Before starting chemotherapy in February, Ms Arkell had IVF treatment as chemo can affect fertility.
Next came a “head-shave barbecue” to which friends and family were invited to take turns at shaving her head -something she “highly recommends” to other who are about to undergo treatment in which they will lose their hair.
“It was one of the most empowering, liberating things I’ve ever done but also it meant I didn’t have to go through the process of losing big clumps of my hair.
“We made it like a celebration and I put that day up there with my 21st birthday. It was so special.”
Then she went through six rounds of chemo, one round every three weeks.
For her final chemo treatment she dressed up as Wonder Woman, which “put a lot of smiles on the nurses faces”.
Not long after being diagnosed with the disease she started a Facebook blog called When Things Went Tits Up, which has documented her cancer journey and has simultaneously been a community for other breast cancer sufferers.
Her first video drew 700 ‘likes’ overnight and the page rapidly gained followers.
She posts monthly self-examination reminders with instructions, saying from the age of 20 women should be proactively checking their breasts for lumps.
“80 per cent of the time it’s nothing, but there is that small percentage… and unfortunately I was one of the unlucky ones.”
Ms Arkell, who works in the sales and marketing industry, aspires to be a motivational speaker.
“I can start looking for a job and start earning again which is very exciting because I am very career driven.”
She said the blog was a platform which was helping her achieve that goal, while “helping a lot of other people… and that’s been incredibly empowering”.
Having cancer had not only been hard on Ms Arkell, but had taken its toll on her relationship.
“For a young couple who have only been together for three years it has not been easy. It’s tested us a lot and he has done nothing but step-up.”
She said the journey had been hard on her family too.
“They’ve had to put everything on hold and they’ve seen me through the ups and downs. You know, I’m their baby and that’s not an easy thing to have to watch your daughter or granddaughter go through.”
Unable to work during chemotherapy, a Givealittle fundraising page was set up for Ms Arkell that many of her Wairarapa friends contributed to.
She said that had been her “saving grace”, alleviating her financial worries and allowing her to focus on “getting through”.
“I’m looking forward to getting my health back, getting physically active and having fun with my hair growing back.
“And a big, big one for me is getting my career back on track – that’s really exciting – being able to get back on my feet.
“Because it has been almost a year since all this started and my whole year of being 26 is gone.”