A Tauranga nurse and mother-of-three is urging other young women to do self-breast exams, ask doctors questions, and to investigate alternative treatment options following her own terminal breast cancer diagnosis.
Being diagnosed with breast cancer last year came as a huge shock to Haley Nienow, now aged 36, who has been a nurse for 14 years.
A CT scan and MRI mid-July 2021 revealed that Haley has Stage 4 metastatic breast cancer, an aggressive form of breast cancer that is terminal.
Haley says the oncologist told her: “There’s no treatment available, so the only treatment we can do is to hopefully slow the spread”. “The oncologist basically just told me to put my affairs in order – ‘you’re going to die’,” says Haley.
Haley’s type of cancer feeds off estrogen. From her medical knowledge and nursing career, Haley knows “ovaries produce 80 per cent of estrogen”.
“I said [to the oncologist] ‘Why aren’t we removing my ovaries right away?’” Haley says she received pushback on this from her oncologist, who instead initially put her on hormone medication. “It was quite difficult to get my oncologist to really collaborate a treatment plan,” says Haley.
“The initial lump was in my breast but spread quickly to my lymph nodes, a tumor on my liver, innumerable tumors all over both lungs, and three spots on my spine,” says Haley, who knows time is of the essence in treating cancers.
While on the surgical wait list, Haley wanted to be proactive about her diagnosis and researched alternative treatments she could combine with Western medical treatments.
“I got in touch with the Godfrey Clinic and started these high-dose vitamin C infusions,” says Haley. For this, she would have 90g of Vitamin C twice-weekly and also incorporate supplements and homeopathic remedies.
In December Haley was able to have her ovaries removed to cease the hormone supply to her cancers.
“In January the scan just showed fabulous results – the original tumor in my breast went from 21mm down to 14mm – the cancer in my lymph nodes were all gone,” says Haley.
However, with the Vitamin C infusions costing $700 a week, Haley cut back on this due to financial strain. Although her next scan in May showed her breast mass had increased to 16mm and the other cancers saw no change.
Haley reflected on the one thing she had changed in her treatment, which was decreasing the Vitamin C doses – so has intensified these again.
“There’s limited proper studies on it so the doctors will say: ‘Well we don’t really know for sure if it was the Vitamin C or the other treatments’,” says Haley, who believes it is the unfunded, alternative treatments combined with her mainstream medical treatments that are positively impacting her cancer diagnosis.
Haley has also incorporated chiropractic care into her treatment plan. She urges others in similar situations to ask about alternative treatments. “You should be given all that information, not just: ‘We’re going to start you on this and this’.”
Haley also wants to strongly encourage other women to do self-breast exams, saying when she worked as a smear-taker she would advise women to do this.
“Had I been listening to my own words and actually done self-breast exams, I could’ve caught this a lot sooner before it became the size of a golf ball,” says Haley.
“The cancers are often more aggressive in these younger women and they’re the mothers – and the mothers can’t get sick,” says Haley, who wants to stay alive for her children Millie, aged two, Rhys, aged four, and Lauren, aged eight.
Haley also believes waiting lists for routine screening such as smears and mammograms are longer due to Covid.
“Women who were due for these have had their appointments postponed, which means they are at risk for delay in treatments and poorer outcomes if early detection and screening isn’t done,” says Haley.
Haley’s doctor has told her she needs to stop working so she can rest and heal. However, due to a WINZ means test against her husband’s income and before-tax calculation, she is not eligible for financial support.
“I have to keep working otherwise we won’t survive,” says Haley who asks: “Why isn’t there any option for terminally ill people?”
“Tony [my husband] has to work extra-long hours to ensure we have enough income to live,” says Haley, who says this has taken a toll on her family as there is little time for rest and family time, and her and Tony are constantly exhausted.
Although Haley has her hard days, she believes in the power of positivity. “I feel like I’ve been put on this journey to do something bigger – using my nursing skills, using my terminal diagnosis for good – even if I could help save one life by sharing my story, what I’m doing with others – that would be amazing,” says Haley.
People can donate to help support Haley’s family and treatments at: https://givealittle.co.nz/cause/help-haley-fight-breast-cancer
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