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Emily's story: So I live on, gratefully.

For Emily Halberg, life was good. She was approaching 10 years of employment with BHP, and enjoying the start of her one year maternity leave with her new born son, Finn, when suddenly three months into her leave, she was diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer, and life as she knew it would change forever.

After four months of intensive chemotherapy, a lumpectomy surgery and four weeks of daily radiation (whilst juggling a newborn and first-time parenthood) Emily shares her mental journey with her diagnosis, the amazing support she received from her colleagues, family and friends during her treatment, and the resilience she developed through her experience.

Can you explain what it felt like to receive your diagnosis? How did it impact your mental health?

My world was shattered. I was 31 years old, with no previous family history. I was confused and devastated and felt so alone. Having been married for only a year I felt as if I’d let my husband down, and I was fearful I wouldn’t be around to see our son’s first birthday.

How did your line leader support you during this time?

At the time, I was reporting into Newman Operations. My 1up and 2up line leaders were incredible; I couldn’t have asked for more empathic, kind people to support me and my family through this time. Both my leaders were residential in Newman, however still found the time to visit our home in Perth when I was going through chemo. Their kindness and generosity of time was so overwhelming - I felt safe speaking with them.

Were there any other BHP programs/tools/support mechanisms you found helpful?

I am a big supporter of EAP (Employee Assistance Program) and the tools BHP provide to support mental health. I was so lucky to have these programs at my disposal, as well as a great network of colleagues checking in on me regularly. I referred my husband to the EAP, I often thought it was harder for him than it was for me as he carried the load of working full time (and managing a remote team), caring for me through active treatment, and for our child.

Can you share how this experience has taught you resilience and how you use this now?

Breaking down what’s in your control is really important. Losing my health, fitness, energy, and confidence was tough, so focusing on the ‘little wins’ everyday gave me strength to regain control.

An element of my resilience I have learnt through this experience is to let go of the things that just don’t matter. I removed myself from the social media that wasn’t adding value to my life, I chose not to speak to people who focused on ‘you must be devastated losing your hair’. My appearance was not the element of change which I was most heartbroken about.

What advice do you have for someone else experiencing a serious illness or caring for a sick loved one in terms of mental health?

  • Communication: It was hard to articulate how I felt somedays, but I had to try. My experience was so unique it is understandable not many could relate. If I didn’t share my feelings, their efforts and energy to support me could be misdirected. I had to let my family and friends in, and sometimes it was saying ‘I feel rubbish today and want to be alone’, and other days it was ‘I have energy, let’s go for a walk’.
  • Direct them to resources on how to talk to people who are going through an illness: I had to educate people around me on words that were helpful, and words which were unintentionally hurtful. Cancer Council have some excellent resources on how to support someone with cancer (practical ways to help, tips on what to say etc.)
  • Focus on healing: I wasn’t in a position to support others in the way I had previously had the emotional capacity to, so during my treatment I had to focus on my recovery and being present with my family. During those months, I had to challenge if I was willing to commit energy outside of those primary priorities.
  • Check in on the support network: I had an abundance of support, so I was most grateful when friends would check in on my husband and offer to help at home so he could have a moment of relief. The support person / family carries so much of the load, I worried more for his mental health than my own.

How has your experience shaped your perspective?

There is no denying having breast cancer so young has been terrifying. I don’t know what the future holds and there are few days that I don’t think about something sinister returning. It was easy to feel sorry for myself, and ask ‘why me’, but then, ‘why not?’ Why not me? Illness does not discriminate. I focused on communicating my feelings, being strict on the energy I let into my space and focusing on enjoying my ‘good days’. I have so much to be thankful for, my life could have ended at 31, but it didn’t. So I live on, gratefully.