Sisters’ drastic double breast surgery
Michelle May and Julie Gaspero have been by each other's side for every major milestone, so there was no question of going it alone for one of the biggest decisions of their lives.
After watching their family left heartbroken by cancer too many times, the Victorian sisters made the brave decision to both have a double mastectomy, opting to have the lifesaving operation on the same day, at the same Melbourne hospital.
In 2015, Michelle, now 33, and Julie, now 31, found out they both carried the breast cancer gene (BRCA), meaning they had a 80 per cent chance of breast cancer and 40 per cent chance of ovarian cancer.
The sisters decided to be tested after their dad was diagnosed with an aggressive form of prostate cancer at 60, making him the fourth person in his immediate family to be struck with cancer.
Both his sisters had been diagnosed with breast cancer, with one later dying of the disease, and his mother - Michelle and Julie's grandmother - died of breast cancer in her early forties.
"It was when dad was diagnosed I thought there was something seriously going wrong with the family … (I thought) it's something that we should really talk about and look into," Julie told news.com.au.
After finding out they had the BRCA gene and that it was now probably a case of not if but when they got cancer, Michelle and Julie had regular screenings.
Then a scare two years ago made them realise more drastic action was needed.
"In 2017 I had some changes in the left breast tissue and I had six months in between scans. For me that was the longest six months," Julie said.
"It was all fine in the end, but that was enough for me to talk to Michelle about (getting the double mastectomy)."
"We both wanted to do it because it would take a lot off our mind," Michelle added. "We would just worry about it everyday, even just looking in the mirror, looking at our boobs and stuff like that, thinking, 'am I going to get breast cancer?'"
On August 9, the pair entered Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre in Melbourne together, holding each other's hands.
"From day dot we found out about our genes we did everything together, which made us closer," Michelle said.
"She's my best friend and I'm hers, we started the journey together and just wanted to end it together," Julie added.
Michelle had the surgery first, with Julie going in for hers immediately afterwards.
Both opted to get implants inserted directly after the mastectomy, a complex procedure that took four and a half hours and saw the sisters spend four days in hospital recovering.
Now both are adjusting to their new breasts and with the support of their loved ones feel empowered by their decision to get double mastectomies.
"It's a different feeling … but it's a big relief not having to worry about it, because we've just got a five per cent chance of breast cancer," Michelle said.
"I'm not going to lie. It's been raw and emotional, it's a big surgery," Julie said. "It puts things into perspective.
"For me personally, there's enough parts of my life missing with dad's mum and sister not being here and it nearly took dad and our other aunt. Certainly it's been empowering for me coming out the other end."
Also helping them along the way is Pink Hope, a support group and resource centre for Australian women hoping to better understand or manage their risk of developing breast and ovarian cancer.
"Just know that you're not alone, know that we're all in this together," Julie said. "Pink Hope has been my backbone since day dot."