Caption: Former Australian women’s rugby union player Mieke Fortune, pictured in the back row, second from left, with the 2001 Australian Wallaroos – is urging all women to get checked for breast cancer. She was diagnosed “by chance” thanks to the vigilance of her GP during a routine check up.
By Richard Bruinsma
Sunshine Coast mum-of-three Mieke Fortune knows what it’s like to have her face squashed down into the mud, in pouring rain, at the bottom of a rugby union ruck with the world’s most relentless opponents.
It’s one of her lasting memories in her debut test in 1995, as part of the Australian women’s rugby union side – the Wallaroos – against the mighty New Zealand team, the Black Ferns.
Her seven years as a second rower in the national team instilled in her a deep ability to persevere, to dig deep within and to fight – the very traits she came to rely on last year when she was diagnosed, quite by chance, with non-invasive breast cancer.
“Rugby was a pretty rough experience – mentally and physically it was a battle – and I’ve taken the experiences from that so that I can face pretty much anything I get from life,” Mieke said.
It turns out, that personal strength was called upon in what is one of the biggest fights of her life.
At just 38 years old, she was still two years away from the age at which medical authorities recommend an annual mammogram. And with her background as a high-level sportswoman, with all the fitness and dietary regimes that that life entails, she never expected to be hit with this significant health challenge. But she was.
Caption: Former Wallaroos coach Ewen McKenzie puts the players through a scrum drill. Mieke Fortune is the player in the scrum nearest to camera.
Her first lesson learned was that breast cancer really doesn’t discriminate – it can strike anyone, of any fitness level, any age and with any type of lifestyle.
“A lot of people come up to me and ask me and want to know a reason, whether it was diet or something else, but I say, ‘no, it doesn’t matter how fit you are, how healthy, it’s just goddamn bad luck’.”
Her diagnosis in July last year led to the usual soul searching, followed by an extraordinary event that stamped her positive attitude on the unknown fight that lay ahead – she held a ladies-only “bye bye boobs” party, complete with strippers, plenty of alcohol, lots of risqué but liberating topless shenanigans, and, importantly, the most poignant of heart-felt speeches.
“I told them that one in eight women will get breast cancer,” Mieke said of her speech to the 150 guests.
“It was a night that had a lot of energy, a lot of women energy, and all those women had turned up to the bye bye boobs night for me, and they were all going to wake up the next day with headaches, Father’s Day, but they did it for me.
“I made them aware and, you know, a lot of those women in the room, including influential women in the community, went later and had mammograms.”
Two days after her party, both her breasts were removed.
While she initially thought the worst was now over, tests on the tissue revealed a second surprise cancer – an invasive strain that demanded 12-weeks of chemotherapy.
“I had my boobs off, I had no nipples, but, of all the things that really got to me, shaving my hair was what caused the most anxiety,” Mieke said.
“Because it was the thing that gave me an identity, it was what it represented to other people.
“I actually got my kids to do it; I got my eight-year-old and my six-year-old to shave my hair.”
Caption: Former Australian women’s rugby union player Mieke Fortune goes through one of her final treatments for her breast cancer at Nambour’s Selangor hospital, with the help of clinical nurse Rochelle Sutherland.
Mieke completed her chemo on New Year’s Eve, and is nearing the completion of treatments she describes as “mopping up” any leftover cancer cells. It was one of these treatments to which she invited the Sunshine Valley Gazette to come along.
She describes how she had battled self-image issues, but is now very much at home with the two horizontal scars across her reconstructed breasts and the absence of nipples.
“When I look in the mirror, I just feel it is part of my story,” she said. “I’ve been prepared to share the whole process from the start.
“I don’t see myself as a victim, I like to help others, so it was a hard thing for me to accept help from anyone.”
Her community, along with husband Graham and their children Meg, 9, Murk, 7, and Milan, 5, all have been great supports through her unexpected ordeal.
Caption: Former Australian Womens Rugby Union second-rower Mieke Fortune.
Mieke had been vigilant with her regular health checks, an attitude borne from when she had a melanoma removed from her neck as a 23-year-old. It’s that vigilance she now urges onto other women regarding health and particularly breast cancer checks.
“The big message is that people wait to have a symptom, but by the time you have symptoms, the horse has bolted,” she says in her upfront country-girl way.
“Go to your GP and have your annual check-up. It’s how you pick things up. Symptoms are usually a sign that you’ve missed the boat.”
Mieke realises she has now changed in her attitude to life.
She has returned to her busy life running the wholesale nursery and cattle stud she operates with her husband, but will continue to be a strong advocate for regular medical checks.
And, of course, will also keep fighting for women in sport – particularly rugby.
“It’s like going to war – it’s not like netball or tennis – rugby is full-blown body contact, except you’ve got your team mates with you to get through.”
Do you have a story to share with Sunshine Valley Gazette readers? Contact Richard Bruinsma at firstname.lastname@example.org or phone 0438434012