Tiffany Bowley’s bustling European lifestyle was put on hold after she found a lump on her breast during her routine check. She sat down with Julia Evans to talk about the last six months of her cancer journey
Tiffany Bowley has no regrets in her life.
The self-confessed extrovert has lived in The Hague in the Netherlands for the last 10 years working as the global lead for Shell.
But Ms Bowley, 37, also loves drum and bass, going to music festivals, art, reading and pop culture.
Plus the chemical engineer can’t go past a cheeky glass of bubbly on a Friday, a side of oysters and a laugh with friends.
However, she now calls that her “previous” life.
“At the end of 2016, my father died and about the same time the company was going through a restructure. I saw the opportunity to avail myself of a redundancy payout. I sort of started thinking about taking some time out from my career would be a good thing,” Ms Bowley said.
In January after a holiday around Europe, Ms Bowley came back to New Zealand for summer and was house-sitting for a friend in New Plymouth.
A Facebook post from a friend reminded her to do a monthly breast check.
“I was like, I should do my own check? I had a quick feel and I felt a lump, but it was one of those days it was 33 deg C and 95 per cent humidity.”
She thought it could be a swollen gland, or a bruise and decided to keep an eye on it.
“By February, it was obviously not just a gland. I had a reasonable lump. I went to my GP here in Christchurch, at that point I was pretty certain it was breast cancer,” Ms Bowley said.
At its worst, she could feel the lump even through her bra.
She spent four hours waiting for the results of her mammogram.
“Being a little bit scientific, when doctors said the images were a little blurry and things, well they may have been, but I guess the way I see it is they wanted to do the tests and not alarm me.”
Ms Bowley knew before her doctor broke the news to her that it was cancer.
“There were a lot of things I was complaining about health-wise that I thought was related to stress. My father’s death, I was travelling more than 100 days of the year and leading a global business being a female and somewhat younger than you would expect for a chemical engineer – it was a high-stress lifestyle.”
She said she was “fortunate” she had kept a health insurance policy in New Zealand and has been treated by the St George’s Hospital cancer care clinic for the last six months.
“We were doing biopsies, straight into fertility treatment, talking to my oncologist, my surgeon and for the first month, my feet didn’t touch the ground.”
Then it was onto chemotherapy.
Ms Bowley said she has actively chosen not to get too depressed about it. She has a limit on how many times she’s allowed to Google breast cancer per week.
“Having witnessed my father, Harry, go through a terminal illness, I kind of realised raging against it wasn’t going to help me. It was the positive attitude that helped him get through it more than anything else.”
So instead she thought to herself . . . how can I make this fun?
“I can’t drink champagne as much as I used to, the dietitian put me on the one glass of wine a week. So I thought right, how can I create a bit of a joke with my friends. So I go to the chemo lounge with my sparkling water and put it in a champagne glass.”
Ms Bowley also wears a different outfit each time she gets chemo.
“I’ve worn my high-vis overalls, my godfather’s Commonwealth Games official uniform, loud bright pjs or dress up very glam. I bake every time I go in.”
Nurses and patients have been treated to everything from shortbread and chocolate cake to “Southland sushi” – cheese rolls.
But there has still been challenges. Ms Bowley said one of the harder aspects of having cancer has been letting her guard down.
“I’ve had to be vulnerable at times. Having quite a high-powered career and being a woman in a man’s domain, although I was comfortable, you don’t often show vulnerability. But here, because I don’t wear a wig, I have a big sign on my head saying look, I’ve got cancer.”
It’s mostly the little things that have taken her by surprise.
“The obvious hair loss is one thing. But you don’t realise how important the hair in your nose is until you lose it. It does a good job at stopping the flow of snot out of your nose when you have a winter cold. I’ve found out the hard way.”
Ms Bowley also joked about being down to only one eyelash, as well as getting itchy feet being stuck in Christchurch.
“For someone who takes more than 100 flights a year, it has been a big change being in one place for so long,” she said.
“I’m grieving a change in lifestyle, a change in culture and on top of that cancer, it can get quite hard. It could be easy to get into a dark space.”
But out of six months, Ms
Bowley said only seven or eight days had been bad.
“When you face death because I did have to sit down and have those conversations at the start as my tumour was quite aggressive, you think well what are my regrets? And I thought, well basically none.”
On Tuesday, Ms Bowley had her last round of chemo and she had a few surprises up her sleeve.
She said she would almost miss the routine of chemo and would definitely miss the people.
She would not miss the chemo drug that gave her “the five-day festival hangover” and said it was time to get the “scary bit” over with. The chemo shrinks the tumour in her breast and whatever is left will be surgically removed in October. But she has no way of knowing how much breast she will lose before she goes under the knife.
“I am nervous. I am going to be permanently scarred. It’s my body and it’s a piece of me and it’s something I have no control over.”
The plan is to keep as much breast tissue as possible, which Ms Bowley said she was a “little bit” disappointed about.
“Who wouldn’t want to get a free set of perfect boobs.”
Then she will be having radiation treatment.
But from there, Ms Bowley doesn’t know what the future will hold and plans to keep it that way for now – with so many possibilities at her fingertips.
“I have the sword of Damocles hanging over my head about my future.”
She said a lot of the places she could work in if she picked up where she left off in the energy industry can be quite dangerous.
“Is it worth the stress and the risk of that? So right now I’m just working through this.
“I have all these ideas in my head about what’s next. But I
do have to look at what’s achievable and what’s realistic. I won’t know until I’m there,” Ms Bowley said.
For anyone going through something similar, she had some advice.
“You are more than the illness.”
And for other women out there, she says make sure you have a monthly check.
•Breast cancer isn’t common in women under the age of 50
•About 70 per cent of women who are diagnosed with breast cancer and about 80 per cent of women who die from it are 50 years or older
•Six per cent are under the age of 40
•Breast cancer is New Zealand’s third most common cancer and the most common for women
•3300 women are diagnosed each year and 25 men
•More than 600 people die from it every year
•It affects one in nine New Zealand women over their lifetime
•90 to 95 per cent have no breast cancer in the family
•There has been a 27 per cent drop in deaths after free screening for women over the age of 45 was introduced