Inspirational Field of Women event

Alex Ford

IT’S difficult enough seeing your mother go through breast cancer, harder still being diagnosed with it yourself at age 26, and even harder when it relapses when you’re a mother of two.

Former Sale resident Jo Francis (née Ruff) has seen it all, and beaten it.

But not everyone is so lucky, and she is passionate about telling her story and making sure other women, and men, are aware and do something about it.

She was chosen as a guest speaker by the Breast Cancer Network Australia at the 20th Field of Women event at the MCG recently, where she spoke about her story, as well as her late cousin, who also suffered from metastatic breast cancer.

Her mother, Glenyss, was an early campaigner — she began Gippsland’s first breast cancer support group, the Waratahs, with Marlene Parsons.

Glenyss underwent experimental treatments and came out the other side, defeating her poor prognosis, and set about helping other women.

She still has the photos of her at the first Field of Women event at Parliament House, and a photo of her and Jo, with brother Ash, at the first MCG event.

For Jo, the cancer journey unfortunately continued, when she found a lump the size of a golf ball in the shower when she was 26.

Mammograms, ultrasounds, and needle biopsies followed, though she had a gut feeling she knew what the doctors would tell her.

“(I was) 26, single, living on my own, just starting to find my way in this world, and now this,” she said.

Talk turned to her fertility, and she was raced through for a procedure to remove ovarian tissue, just in case.

“The treatment was tough but I had wonderful support from my amazing family and close network of friends,” she said.

“I tried to live as normal a life as possible — I’d still go out, date, work, and just be 26.

“We had a shaving ceremony where my brother shaved my head; I needed to own this as everything else in my life was out of my control.

“The hardest part was after everything finished, and I was struggling with my mental health.

“How do you go back to being normal when everything has completely changed in your life?”

Life went on, and she eventually married and had two daughters, starting her own business.

In September last year, when her daughters were aged two and four, Jo noticed the signs again.

“I only had to look at the medical staff who were in the room to know what was going on — I’d been here before,” she said.

“I am now six months post-op and just have one small operation to go.

“I am on Tamoxifen for the next 10 years, which is a whole other story, but I’m slowing getting on top of those side effects.

“If this is what I have to take to keep the Big C from coming back, I’ll take it.”

When she underwent a double mastectomy, doctors found another undetected lump, showing just how serious her fight was.

Throughout the last diagnosis, her cousin, a Sale girl who was like a sister to Jo, had been fighting her own breast cancer battle.

She fought hard for seven years, and died in March.

“We shared so much throughout our lives from the day we were born, to having children to fighting breast cancer,” Jo said.

“She is my inspiration and the reason I want to tell my story.”

The Field of Women is a visually powerful representation of the number of women diagnosed with breast cancer in Australia every year.

The dramatic aerial photos show 12,000 people wearing bright pink.

The small figures are placed in the ground with tributes from families, friends, and survivors.

“Standing on the MCG is pretty incredible, it’s an amazing experience,” Jo said.

“It makes you feel like you’re part of the community, because going through breast cancer is very isolating, but the Breast Cancer Network can make you feel included.

“It’s a very uplifting experience, it’s emotional, and I felt very honoured to stand there and represent the 18,000 women diagnosed every year, and the carers, and survivors

“It was quite humbling, and amazing to look over the 12,000 people there in their ponchos and all the pink ladies.”

Jo’s next move is to set up a group to continue helping women.

“Now, after two times, it’s time to give back because I’ve been given so much by BCNA,” she said.

“I’m a beautician by trade, and moving forward I want to start a foundation.

“We’ll work directly with women with breast cancer and help them on their journey — skin care, beauty, mindfulness — you take a bit of care, and some tricks, to help get through it.

“… just having those tools in front of you (helps).

“Mental health is really important, and when you look good you feel better.

“That was a big thing for me, just knowing I could walk out and have a non-cancer day, that was amazing — no one would take a second glance at me.”

Regional outreach was a priority, Jo added. Resources in Sale are better than most, with the Footprints Foundation supporting sufferers and their families, the Blossoms group providing a local network, and Gippsland Women’s Health doing a huge amount to help with diagnosis and other support.

Jo also intends to do more work in education and encouraging women to know what to look for and to talk to each other.

“So many more young women are getting diagnosed, and there’s more awareness about things like self-examinations — it’s a big thing, and if you’re in a room full of other women that get it, it’s really helpful,” she said.

“Women talk a lot more, they’re open and honest, and that’s all education.

“ That’s played a big role in saving women’s lives. “People don’t die of breast cancer, they die of metastatic breast cancer, and I feel that’s where the emphasis needs to be.

“If we can stop the breast cancer or educate people to stop it before it spreads, that will stop the metastases and growth.”

Her advice is simple.

“Check your boobs,” she said.

“At the end of the day, you know your body, and with women’s intuition, you can’t go past that — the first time I was educated, second time I knew my body.

“Go get it checked.

“That’s the only reason I’m here today.”

For more information, follow @jofrancis00 on Instagram, check out Jo’s story at Me and My Girls on Facebook, or visit the Breast Cancer Network Australia website.