ON THE QUEST TO CURE CANCER
The Northern Beaches has a higher rate of breast cancer than the state average - and cancer incidence rates in the Warringah area are higher than the state-wide average.
Terrifyingly, there are above average breast cancer deaths also in these areas. However, experts have no idea why.
Two local mothers, Michelle Heaton-Armstrong and Meghann Parker, are leading a fundraising group of mums who are on a mission to find out, and are funding cancer research via their charity, Fight for a Cure, and the Fight on the Beaches (FOTB) Christmas in July Ball.
More than 720 people are expected to attend the annual event, taking place on July 28 at Miramare Gardens, Terrey Hills. To date, it's raised $800,000 for cancer research.
"This year we hope to surpass the S1 million mark,” Narrabeen mum-of-three Michelle tells Peninsula Living.
"There are six of us on the executive committee and when we originally got together, none of us had any experience whatsoever in putting on an event.
"We're all working mums and have got a hundred things to do. But we're driven by the desire to make a change."
Sadly, everyone in the six-strong executive committee has been affected by cancer. Michelle's father, Ken, died of oesophageal cancer in 2013. Another member lost her father-in-law to the disease, and another, her best friend.
"You can't say anyone is more affected than anyone else,"
Michelle muses, "but I guess the one that resonates with all of us is that one of the girls lost her four-year old daughter, Neve, in 2014.
"We all felt, 'If there's children being lost to this, then we really need to do something about it'."
The money from the ball will be donated to Fight for a Cure - the majority will go to fund cancer research, while a small portion will be retained to fund local prevention and early detection programs. The current early detection program provides free clinics for women, offering a free nanny service for preschool age children, so their mothers can receive a general blood test and breast, skin and cervical cancer checks.
A sizeable amount will be put aside to fund cancer researchers in our local region.
"We've tried to geographically target research institutes that would benefit the people who were funding them," Michelle explains. "And we don't fund the facility - we fund a researcher at the facility. It's called tied-funding. For example, they don't just get $100,000 and spend it on stationery. It has to be spent on an individual who will research a particular type of cancer, or something related to cancer, for at least a 12-month period."
Forestville local Heidi Hilton is one of the funded researchers. She works at the Westmead Institute for Medical Research, which is affiliated with the University of Sydney, and is studying how molecular mechanism in hormones affects breast cancer.
Heidi, who has been successfully treated for breast cancer herself, says, "Cure is the holy grail, but it's a big word. In some cancers, we've found cures. In breast cancer, we're getting a better understanding of how it begins.
"Prevention is as good as a cure in many instances. We're getting closer but it requires ongoing research because as well as our understanding getting better, some of the cancers are getting treatment resistant, so it's a moving target."
She hopes her work will help researchers understand how abnormal hormone action, including starting their menstrual cycle earlier or menopause later, may increase the risk of getting breast cancer - and how to prevent it.
She says she's grateful to Fight on the Beaches for funding early career researchers, explaining, "Usually funding goes to the most experienced professors of 60+ years. But the beauty of this is that it's going to the younger ones, where newer, fresher ideas can sometimes eventuate."
Breast cancer claims the lives of 900 women in NSW each year, and BreastScreen NSW, which targets women aged 50 and over, says 400,000 women in the state are not attending recommended routine screens.
Laura Kiely, from the Cancer Institute NSW, states, "Women should be aware of the risk factors associated with breast cancer and the importance of having a screening mammogram every two years." Melanoma is also a huge issue for the Northern Beaches community, with higher than average melanoma incidence rates throughout the region.
FOTB is also partnering with local schools and day care centres to hold a 'Christmas in July' mufti day on July 21. All gold coin donations will go towards cancer research.
"My kids were devastated at losing their Pop," adds Michelle.
"And we've all noticed with our kids, how they're very aware of what we're doing and want to be on board with it as well.
"We've all been affected by cancer, so everyone can relate."