It’s exactly twelve months since Vivienne Interrigi received her breast cancer diagnosis. This was on the same day that celebrates women’s achievement and raises awareness of women’s issues across the globe. A year on, Vivienne has experienced the most challenging year of her life, having been on a rollercoaster journey from surgery through chemotherapy, radiation therapy, cold capping, bone infusions and monthly injections. Having survived the worst year of her life, she truly understands how significant it is to participate in raising awareness and funds for cancer research to combat the most common cancer diagnosis for Australian women today.
This International Women’s Day, Vivienne has joined the ranks as Community Ambassador for the 2019 Women in Super Mother’s Day Classic.
The former business educator and now family therapist acknowledges the Mother’s Day Classic continues to be of special significance to her. Since losing a dear friend to breast cancer 19 years ago, Viv has been an active and passionate supporter of the Mother’s Day Classic. Her friend’s Mum passed away on Mother’s Day last year. And this year she will walk for the first time as a breast cancer survivor.
“The MDC is an important reminder to not take anything for granted. It means so much to me to be able to do it this year with my husband and two children, and amazing friends,” says Vivienne.
Vivienne had completed her Masters in Counselling and was working as a school counsellor. She pushed through her difficult year last year and completed her Master of Family and Systemic Therapy and is now working with vulnerable children and families.
“I needed to make sure that my everyday life is one of fulfillment, passion and family. After going through an experience like I have, that is life-changing in so many ways – physically, mentally and emotionally – it was vital for me to also make a difference to others in need who are trying to cope in really difficult circumstances."
When news of her diagnosis came, her first thought was her two children, Kalan (13) and Keisha (11), and how they were to understand the life threatening journey she was about to face.
“It was like going from hell and back, and I was very much aware of the huge impact it would have on my family. The kids were really beautiful and there were many tears and anger throughout the process. Kalan has a lovely sense of humour and he was able to bring light to some of the really trying situations,” she says. “They had to grow up pretty fast and learn how to help around the house, cooking and cleaning, and supporting my husband Frank every day,” Vivienne says, “It was an emotional journey for everyone.”
During chemotherapy, Vivienne opted into wearing the ‘cold cap’. This is an awful experience where they freeze your head to -30 degrees. Many women are unable to continue after the first few sessions but Viv was so determined to do everything she could to save her hair.
“My daughter Keisha didn’t want me to lose my hair. I think it was the part that really scared her as it represented for her, death and dying. I had to reassure her and say, Mummy’s not going to die,” says Vivienne.
“I’m not one for a lot of make-up and comfortable with being casually dressed, but yet it suddenly felt very important for me to want to retain the physical aspects of my femininity! I managed to keep most of my hair for Keisha and myself.”
Vivienne was recently contacted by the chemotherapy manager from the Monash hospital in south-eastern Melbourne where she completed her treatment. For women like Vivienne, it is a physically and emotionally gruelling process which can take up to 3 months, performed in 3 week cycles, with the some days in the hospital lasting for six hours or more, especially if it involves the arduous process of cold capping. She now spends time volunteering at the hospital, helping women currently undergoing chemotherapy by providing support and talking to them about the self-care required at this stage of treatment and advising on how to cope afterwards.
“I tell them to listen to yourself, listen to your body. Stop doing, if you need to stop doing. Slow down if you need to slow down. It’s really okay if you can’t do it today, you can do it tomorrow or when you feel you can. And don’t promise anything. Don’t overcommit. Don’t be afraid to ask for help and support if you need it. Don’t forget there will be family and friends around you that want to help,” she says.
Vivienne visits her G.P. regularly for health checks, the G.P. who recommended doing a random mammogram (because she had never had one before) and which ultimately saved her life. She was not aware then that breast screening is free to women over 40 years of age.
“Every time I sit in the waiting room there, I can’t resist telling all the other patients that my GP saved my life and to make an appointment to be screened!” says Vivienne.
She believes it is so important to increase awareness and pass on to others what she knows now.
“I think my journey through diagnosis and treatment has cemented my feeling about being yourself and being proud of who you are. When you are dealing with this uncertainty, it brings out and shows the humanity we all possess and are surrounded by. And it reinforces the importance of appreciating all the little things in your life – the cup of tea in the morning, coming home to your family after work. Don’t take anything for granted because you never know what tomorrow will hold.”
Vivienne feels very grateful for the incredible support from her family and friends she received and is bringing them all together to “Walk with Viv” on 12 May hoping to encourage every family to make Mother’s Day more meaningful and a positive way of celebrating it.