ONE of Perth’s best-known medical families has opened up about their personal breast cancer journey to warn women with dense-tissue breasts to be extra vigilant about their prevention plan.
Alexa Miller, parent of two teenagers with Dr Andrew Miller, who has stepped back as the Australian Medical Association’s WA president to spend more time with his family, feels lucky her breast cancer was “caught in time” earlier this year.
Alexa and Andrew, both 52, are now urging women who have dense-tissue breasts to no longer just rely on mammograms for regular check-ups, but to insist on getting ultrasounds as a basic level of care.
“Just having a mammogram is not enough, it gives you a false sense of security,” Alexa said as she adjusted her wig.
Andrew added: “If you have dense breasts, you’ve got to approach this a bit differently and have a plan with your GP involving an ultrasound and possibly an MRI.”
Alexa had previously believed she had good awareness of breast health, having regular check-ups for most of her life because of her dense and irregular breasts, regardless of having no family history of breast cancer.
She also felt she had a better-than-average knowledge of tell-tale signs of “something not being quite right”, having been married for 25 years to Andrew, an anaesthetist with GP experience.
When Alexa felt yet another lump in early February, she figured a routine check-up would just result in one more false alarm.
While the mammogram showed everything was fine, the clinicians at Hollywood Hospital went one step further and did an ultrasound.
That’s when Alexa’s life was turned upside down as the extra test showed the lump was suspect.
An MRI confirmed the 3.3cm lump was breast cancer and a second smaller lump was found. Days later, Alexa was on the operating table, where it was discovered the cancer had spread to her lymph nodes.
She ended up having all lymph nodes removed and a full mastectomy.
Now having a “good excuse” to rest at her Swanbourne home, Alexa has grimaced through four out of six rounds of chemotherapy.
Several weeks of radiotherapy will follow. But with the support of Andrew to help her and the kids, Lara, 19, and Coen, 15, Alexa feels relatively relaxed and upbeat about the rest of her treatment and the future that lies ahead.
While the Millers have been separated for four years, they maintain a close and friendly relationship.
They say their amicable co-parenting approach has not only helped their children in recent years but has also been incredibly beneficial in helping the family cope with the breast cancer journey.
Andrew said it was important for family to provide psychological support so the assessment and surgery period didn’t result in post-traumatic stress disorder.
“That in-between stage when you’ve had a diagnosis and you’re waiting for treatment can be a very traumatic time,” he said.
Alexa said once she had passed the initial stress of surgery, the most difficult part of her breast cancer journey had been coping with the “debilitating fatigue”.
She said while every person’s cancer journey was unique to them, she felt it was important to “not overthink the what-if scenarios or to think the worst” and to “take one day at a time”.
But despite dealing with stage 2 cancer, Alexa said she felt an overriding sense of hope, not only about her prospects, but about other WA women.
“We empathise with the thousands of families who are going through what we’re going through and many are doing it a lot tougher than we are,” she said.
“But we want to emphasise that there are many good reasons to have hope because of the great treatments that people in WA can get.”
Andrew said breast assessment facilities at public and private hospitals in Perth where surgeons, oncologists and radiotherapists worked together had given people in WA access to world-standard care.