Deb's story

How a positive mindset and active lifestyle helped a breast cancer fight. 

Deb Shirley was back teaching Pilates eight weeks after having a double-mastectomy.

The active mother, who shares seven adult children with her current partner, believes she recovered well from the breast cancer operation because she was fit. She’d been teaching and practising Pilates for over a decade, and found she could use her stomach muscles instead of her chest to get out of bed.

A resilient personality also helped, along with the excellent treatment she received and the fact she caught the cancer early during a self-examination – just over six months after her regular mammogram had come up clear. 

“I can’t say I wasn’t shocked when I was diagnosed, but I wasn’t alarmed,” she says. “I felt I was in good hands. So when I was told it was breast cancer I thought, ‘that’s a nuisance’, but I was also confident that it was going to be handled.”

Taking control

From there, Deb says she was “on a treadmill” where things happened quickly, which she also found reassuring. Told there was a chance the cancer could spread to her other breast, she was given the option of a double-mastectomy and decided it was a no-brainer.

“I made up my mind on the spot, that’s what I wanted. The surgeon told me to give it the weekend to think about it, but I said ‘I’ve made up my mind, I want them both off’. There wasn’t any angst.”

While the hormone-blocking drug therapy she was given following the surgery took some adjustments, Deb was grateful to not have to go through chemotherapy.

“The thing that struck me the most was feeling a certain level of control when it happens to you, but when it happens to a loved one, you don’t have control.

Indeed, Deb would know just how that felt, when her partner was diagnosed with gastric cancer in 2014. “He’d always been a healthy person and went for a routine check. He had to go through 18 weeks of chemotherapy and an enormous operation.”

Moving forward

The two are both now in remission. They’re transitioning to retirement via a new house near the beach in Avalon on Sydney’s Northern Beaches, and are awaiting their first grandchild.

Born in South Africa, Deb arrived in Australia at the age of four and went to school on Sydney’s North Shore. Her sporty and active childhood later evolved into a career in PE teaching, and three children with her then husband.

She stayed active during the pregnancies and while raising young kids, and has always maintained a healthy weight and lifestyle. “I was lucky I had my first child in an hour and half, my second in an hour, and my third in twenty minutes,” she says.

Check yourself

Deb now urges all women to do breast self-exams and book in for regular mammograms. She personally ticked no obvious risk factors and had no family history of breast cancer.

“I wasn’t overweight. I didn’t drink. I never smoked. I am extremely active and eat mainly a vegetarian diet. I’ve always maintained a healthy weight. So when the doctor looked at my life and lifestyle, she said ‘this is so annoying because you really shouldn’t have this’.”

Deb also has an important message for breast cancer survivors, and anyone who’s gone through a mastectomy

“It’s not the end of the world not to have breasts,” she says. “It’s such a personal decision for everyone … But I didn’t feel the need to go through reconstruction. I don’t feel any less ‘woman-ly’ without breasts. I’ve put them to good use, fed three children successfully and I don’t need them anymore.”