11 September 2019

"My Christmas present 2003 was to have it confirmed that I had breast cancer," - Neville Baker

| Ian Campbell
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Neville and Dianne Baker

Neville and Dianne Baker at their Catalina home near Batemans Bay.

Catalina’s Neville Baker has just turned 70. As if it was yesterday, he speaks of the day 13 years earlier when he felt a burning in his right breast.

He knew something wasn’t right and took himself to the doctor.

“My Christmas present 2003 was to have it confirmed that I had breast cancer,” Neville says.

Neville and wife Dianne were living in Orange, in Central West New South Wales at the time

Neville has a background as an agricultural mechanic and as a Quickbooks trainer, Dianne is a retired TAA air hostess.

They met while both working in New Guinea.

“He bought me a drink and he has been buying me drinks ever since,” Di laughs.

Returning to Australia in 1973, two children followed – Adam and Serena.

The Christmas cancer diagnoses of 2003 opened a can of health, genetic and social worms for Neville, his family and community.

“In the January, Dr James French (Westmead Breast Cancer Insitute) removed my right breast and all lymph nodes in my right arm,” Neville recalls.

Four rounds of chemotherapy followed.

“It’s like getting yourself a schooner glass of kerosene and drinking it,” Neville says.

Every 12 months thereafter, Neville has had a mammogram. Since moving to the Eurobodalla in 2009, that check up has happened at Moruya Hospital.

“Just the other the day the radiographer joked that she very rarely does a mammogram on a hairy chest,” Neville laughs.

“If you didn’t laugh you’d curl up in a corner and cry.”

Neville and his family are grateful for the 13 Christmases that have followed and like anyone who has walked the fine line between life and death, there is a terrific “don’t tolerate fools” attitude from the Bakers.

Drinking coffee and eating homemade cake overlooking the Tollgate Islands from his lounge room, Neville is keen to share part of his story that he still struggles to understand – the reaction many had to his breast cancer diagnoses.

“People didn’t know how to handle me,” Neville starts to explain.

Neville says even his GP at the time seemed confronted by a man with a breast cancer.

“He basically ran away,” Neville says.

“Cancer is cancer, whether you have got it as a melanoma, or you’ve got it as breast, or pancreatic, whatever the case maybe.”

“Some people just couldn’t handle it – here’s a bloke who has just had breast cancer,” Neville says.

Neville and Dianne are reluctant to add too much more detail. Let bygones be bygones they say, but the shake in their voice and look on their face says it all.

“Fortunately we found a very nice doctor in Orange, who took over my case and was very supportive,” Neville says.

Memories of people who did step up bring a smile back to the Baker’s face.

Especially the story of a mate who mowed the neighbour’s lawn thinking it was Neville and Dianne’s.

“And the lawn next door was much bigger,” Neville chuckles.

Neville speaks with Ian Campbell for the About Regional podcast – episode 7

While breast cancer is uncommon in men the advice they receive is familiar.

Cancer Australia encourages men who find a change in their breasts not let embarrassment or uncertainty prevent them from seeing a doctor.

As with female breast cancer, early detection and treatment are the best ways to survive the disease.

In 2012, there were 116 men diagnosed with breast cancer in Australia, around 90% were over the age of 50.

Breast cancer in men is the same disease that affects women. Even though men have less breast tissue the disease works and progresses in a similar way.

Signs and symptoms in men include discharge from the nipple, change in shape or appearance of the nipple and or breast, pain, and swollen lymph nodes under the arm.

“Men are becoming more aware of their health, but (sadly) I would say a lot of men die having breast cancer and not knowing about it,” Neville says.

During his recovery, Neville was invited to take part in genetic testing, a move that would further challenge the attitudes and feelings of those around him.

“Within my family, my father died of prostate cancer and one of my father’s sisters died of breast cancer,” Neville explains.

“They (doctors and researchers) seemed to think there could be a link – somewhere.”

A simple blood test followed and nine months later, Neville’s family genetics were blown open.

Associate Professor Judy Kirk at the Family Cancer Service in Westmead Hospital told Neville and Dianne that a BRCA2 gene mutation had been detected.

Associate Professor Kirk explained that BRCA1 and BRCA2 are normal human genes that help suppress the growth of tumours. They help repair damaged DNA and play a role in ensuring the stability of a cell’s genetic material.

When either of these genes mutates or is altered it is not able to function correctly and as such DNA damage goes unrepaired, triggering the potential for cells to mutate which can lead to cancer.

Associate Professor Kirk advised that a woman’s lifetime risk of developing breast and or ovarian cancer was greatly increased if they had inherited the harmful BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutation and that cancer tended to develop at a younger age.

Neville wrote of his genetic discovery to family near and far and introduced them to Associate Professor Kirk in order that they could make their own investigations.

“One of my cousins had the test, she proved positive and had her ovaries removed, and they came back a cancerous.”

“I get a Christmas card (from her) every year,” Neville smiles.

Others in the family also took the test for the deadly mutation.

“The cousins that proved ‘negative’ breathed a big sigh of relief,” Neville says.

Neville and Dianne’s daughter Serena was thirty when she was tested and proved ‘positive’.

“At the time it was shock-horror, what have I done?”

“But because she was ‘positive’ to the gene she is eligible for mammograms and ongoing support,” Neville explains.

“Instead of having to wait until she is fifty.”

Some in his extended family never responded to Neville’s information pack. The 70-year-old accepts that cancerous genetics is confronting news to get at the letterbox but he says he felt obliged to pass the information on.

With the smoke from his 70th birthday candles still hanging in the air, Neville is concerned that regional cancer patients might not be given the option of genetic testing.

“This genetic testing is available,” Neville says.

“Don’t hold back.

“The more that people know, then the more lives can be saved.”

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