RACGP President shares her story to promote breast cancer awareness

Matt Woodley

4/10/2021 3:37:29 PM

Dr Karen Price has opened up about her own experience with the deadly disease.

Dr Karen Price
RACGP President Dr Karen Price has shared her breast cancer story to raise awareness and promote the importance of preventive healthcare.

Moments after being informed she had just won the RACGP Presidential election in 2020, Dr Karen Price went into surgery.
A routine mammogram, undertaken shortly after finishing her presidential campaign, and a subsequent a core biopsy had both produced inconclusive results.
With the memory of immediate past President Dr Harry Nespolon’s death due to pancreatic cancer fresh in her memory, Dr Price opted to have the problematic tissue removed.
‘The last thing I said to my surgeon as they put me under was, “I just won the election”,’ Dr Price told Nine Newspapers in an article promoting Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
But despite having no familial history of breast cancer, never smoking and only drinking in moderation, two days later she received an official diagnosis of breast cancer.
The timing of the results did not leave much room to process the potentially life-changing journey upon which Dr Price was about to embark.
‘I knew how complicated this could get, especially as the RACGP had lost Harry so tragically,’ she said.
‘At a time of COVID when the whole health sector was stressed and looking for leadership, which I’d promised, how could I let it come out that I’ve got cancer? That was a big consideration.
‘Obviously, if I’d needed chemo I probably wouldn’t have taken [the job] because that would have been carelessly disruptive to the general practice sector.’
The already challenging task of assuming the leadership of Australia’s largest medical college in the midst of an unprecedented global pandemic, was suddenly complicated even further.
Dr Price told her family and a few trusted colleagues, including then Acting RACGP President Associate Professor Ayman Shenouda, before opting for a double mastectomy, even though the cancer was only in one breast.
The reason for selecting this procedure, Dr Price said, is that surgeons are only able to take fat from the abdomen for breast reconstruction once.
The experience has made her passionate about pushing for public patients to have access to an immediate reconstruction like she did, because it is physically and psychologically less disruptive than having two separate surgeries.
‘I don’t feel like my femininity or who I am resides in my breasts. I’m about getting rid of as much risk as possible,’ Dr Price said.
‘But it was still a fairly gruelling thing – you wake up and you’ve got basically five drain tubes, plus oxygen, and you’re trussed up and you really can’t move.’
Limited hospital visits due to COVID restrictions further added to the hardship, while the painful recovery meant it was four weeks until the pain subsided.
However, even though the surgeon had told her the breast cancer was aggressive, the preventive healthcare Dr Price received in the form of a mammogram meant it had been caught early and the surgery appeared to have successfully stopped it spreading.
‘If I’d waited three months, my outcome would have been very different,’ she said.
It is why Dr Price – now cancer-free although on medication for the next five years – is sharing her story.
In the first six months of 2020 alone, there were nearly 145,000 fewer mammograms completed in Australia compared to the same period in previous years – despite breast cancer being the second most common cause of cancer‑related death in Australian women.
And even taking into account the impact the pandemic has had on cancer screenings, the relative lack of preventive breast checks is not a new problem; only 55% of the target age group participated in BreastScreen Australia in 2016–17.
‘We need people to just keep up with seeing their GP for check-ups, for going into the routine screens, for understanding that health and disease are not inseparable, but they intertwine because that’s the life of being human,’ she said.
The RACGP is hosting a free breast cancer webinar focusing on symptoms treatment and survivorship at 7.00 pm (AEDT) on 27 October. More information and registration is available on the RACGP website.
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Dr Christine Barstad   5/10/2021 7:12:09 AM

Very grateful you have shared your story and grateful you are ok! It is a grueling experience and must have been exceedingly stressful for you. Well done to come out of it running as you did but I hope you are taking care of yourself! Those numbers about breast cancer screening are very concerning and as GP numbers dwindle because of inadequate reimbursement, they will only get worse I am afraid.