October 1, 2018
A Second Chance
Wendy Barnes is a survivor; a warrior who has fought the beast that is breast cancer, not once, but twice and won. Ten years on from her initial diagnosis, the courageous mother-of-three is finally free of the insidious disease and living life to the fullest. This is her story.
Wendy Barnes greets me with a warm smile and open arms at her Mooloolaba home on the day of our interview. Tanned and relaxed in a flowing white summer dress, she is the picture of radiance and health.
There is a sense of calmness that surrounds Wendy and I find myself echoing her slower pace as we chat over a coffee on her deck overlooking the Mooloolaba River.
“Strange as it sounds, cancer has changed me for the better in a lot of ways,” says Wendy, looking pensively out over the water. “I smell the roses now. I was always on the go, always rushing. Now I slow down and I enjoy life.
“I feel it’s made me a better person. I am very grateful. When I wake up every day and my feet hit the ground, I remember how lucky I am. Even after what I have been through, I know I am one lucky lady.”
Wendy was just 43 when she was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 2008. She and husband Trevor had recently moved their young family from South Australia to the Sunshine Coast and were looking forward to a new adventure when their world fell apart.
“I felt a lump in my left breast the size of a pea, so I went to my doctor and she sent me for a mammogram, it all unfolded from there,” says Wendy.
“Exercise, meditation and swimming has helped me so much. I swam all through my chemo. Two years ago I met this amazing group called the Mooloolaba Beach Bums, I swim with them every morning at 6.30am.”
After undergoing a lumpectomy, doctors discovered Wendy had an invasive ductal carcinoma, which meant having the cancer removed and a gruelling six months of chemotherapy followed by several weeks of radiation.
“They were very challenging times. We didn’t really know anyone and we had no family here. The kids were only 15, 13 and seven so it was really tough,” says Wendy.
Following her initial treatment, Wendy returned to hospital to have all 22 lymph nodes in her left arm removed, which unfortunately led to further complications.
“I got an infection and then cellulitis, which meant my arm grew to an enormous size, so I had to have another operation,” says Wendy.
But despite the setbacks and challenges Wendy faced both physically and emotionally throughout her treatment, she maintained her fit and healthy lifestyle, which included swimming every day in an effort to remain positive.
“I had some rough times, don’t get me wrong. I got through it, not only with the help and support of my husband and
kids and friends but also by having a strong mindset.
Exercise, meditation and swimming has helped me so much. I swam all through my chemo. Two years ago I met this amazing group called the Mooloolaba Beach Bums, I swim with them every morning at 6.30am.”
In fact, rather than wallow in self pity, and think, ‘Why me?’, the pint-sized warrior used her illness to help others going through the same journey by taking part in charity walks and participating in the Rio Tinto Ride to Conquer Cancer in 2008, raising $10,500.
Life was good and the Barnes family thought they had seen the last of this terrible disease until just days before friends prepared to board planes to come and help celebrate her five- year remission when Wendy was struck down with breast cancer for a second time.
“I had no symptoms at all, apart from feeling a little bit tired, so I went to the appointment on my own because my husband was at a meeting in Brisbane, and we really didn’t think there would be anything to worry about,” says Wendy.
“I knew something was wrong when two doctors came in they said, ‘I’m sorry Mrs Barnes, but we’ve found another lump’, and I said, ‘You are f##king joking me’! I was gutted. I felt sick. I had no idea I would have a relapse, it didn’t even enter my mind.
“They did a biopsy there and then and we had to wait two days, which was horrendous. I got my husband to take me away on the motorbike and we were at Maleny when the doctor rang and said, ‘I think you need to come in’.
“It was so cruel, I started the journey all over again. The second time is the hardest because you know what’s going to happen.”
Despite the devastating blow, Wendy went ahead with her party. Determined to rid herself of this horrible disease once and for all, she was not about to give up without one hell of a fight.
“It was the best thing I could do,” says Wendy. “We had Champagne and I made plaster of paris so my girlfriends could all take a scoop and put it on my boobs to make a mould of them.”
That mould was something Wendy would treasure in the years to come as she had already made the brave decision to have a double mastectomy to give her the best chance of survival.
“For me it was the best thing to have a double mastectomy. I can honestly say that,” says Wendy.
“I knew I just wanted them both removed. I thought, I’ve got a young family, I have so much to live for and so many places to go and things to do. When I woke up from the operation, I felt relieved. I felt I was going to live.”
And live she has. In fact, Wendy and her family have ticked quite a few things off their bucket list since she was given her second chance at life including walking the Great Wall of China and sailing around the Whitsundays.
Next year, she and Trevor have planned to walk the Inca Trail in Machu Picchu.
“My priorities have really changed,” says Wendy. “It has put a lot of stuff into perspective. I don’t sweat the small stuff. As long as I have a roof over my head, my husband, my kids; I’m happy.
“It’s experiences rather than material things that are most important to me now. For my 50th, some people asked me if I was going to have a breast reconstruction, but I said, ‘Hell no, I’m walking the Great Wall of China’. I’m not having a reconstruction, this is who I am now.”
“It’s experiences rather than material things that are most important to me now. For my 50th, some people asked me if I was going to have a breast reconstruction, but I said, ‘Hell no, I’m walking the Great Wall of China’. I’m not having a reconstruction. I have fed my kids, I don’t need them, this is who I am now.”
Apart from her own struggles with the disease, Wendy says it’s watching others around her who have not been so lucky that has affected her the most. And it’s organisations such as Bloomhill which have been her saving grace.
“We had no family or support but a nurse told me about Bloomhill. I would go there during my treatment and it was my safe haven. I met 12 people there when I was first diagnosed who I went on a retreat with and there are only four of us left, so it has been hard watching people pass.
“It’s very hard to watch friends who are still going through the journey. It has been such a rollercoaster ride of emotions. I have recently lost my best friend’s husband to cancer and my dear friend Donna Penny has been battling breast cancer and now secondary cancer for the past 10 years.
“I try to be there for her and be strong for her. I go and visit her and maybe just do her dishes or take her to the doctor. It’s just about offering help and support because I know what it’s like and I know she would do the same for me.”
Thankfully, Wendy was recently been given the all-clear from her doctors and at the time of this interview was making plans for her upcoming 10-year remission party.
“Life is amazing. I can’t wait for my 10-year party. It’s going to be a big celebration. I feel you have to celebrate those big milestones, I’m lucky I’ve made it. You don’t know what’s down the track for anyone, but for me, I’ve got rid of the boobs, the cancer is gone and I believe I’m going to make the 30, the next 40, the next 50 years.”