Breast Cancer Awareness Month is a time to celebrate stories of triumph over adversity. According to cancer.net, female breast cancer is the fifth leading cause of death and the most commonly diagnosed cancer.
Today, we introduce you to Deirdré de Jager, a breast cancer survivor whose resilience and positivity shine as a beacon of hope. Her experience reminds us of the importance of early detection and the incredible spirit of those who face this challenge.
Deirdré is currently a Procurement Specialist at Rio Tinto and a member of IWiM’s Advisory Council. Read her full bio here.
- Please briefly introduce yourself. Can you share a bit about your breast cancer diagnosis and how do you cope with the emotional and physical toll this takes on you?
My name is Deirdré de Jager, and I’m South African by birth, Australian by choice. I’m a loving wife, mother to our beautiful girls, and a passionate Rio Tinto employee. I am also a survivor of breast cancer.
I was diagnosed with stage 1 Triple Negative Breast Cancer (on my 39th birthday) after finding a lump in my right breast one morning in the shower. Thanks to my swift action in seeking medical advice, I was diagnosed early enough to make a difference and ensure a positive outcome for me.
After undergoing a lumpectomy, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy, I am grateful to be healthy again today. The journey has been a difficult one, both physically and mentally. I find that by adhering to medical advice, and actively focusing on my mental health, I am able to maintain a positive attitude and face the challenges that come my way.
- In what ways has your perspective on life and health changed since your diagnosis?
As I reflect on my experience in living with Breast Cancer, I’ve come to learn that good health is the foundation on which to build a good life. Before my diagnosis I simply assumed that I would always be healthy, and never gave much thought to the possibility of a serious illness. I always treated cancer like something that only happened to other people, not me.
I now understand that it can happen to anyone, because cancer does not discriminate.
I take my health more seriously, humbled by the realisation that I am one of those “other people” that have been touched by Breast Cancer yet fortunate to still be around to build a good life.
- As a Community Ambassador for the National Breast Cancer Foundation and an advocate for early diagnosis, how important do you think breast cancer awareness and early detection are in improving outcomes for patients?
There is no denying that early detection of Breast Cancer drastically improves the outcomes for people like me. As a Community Ambassador for National Breast Cancer Foundation (NBCF), Australia’s leading not-for-profit organisation funding world-class breast cancer research, I have learnt that early detection drastically improves the 5-year survival rate of those diagnosed with the disease.
I encourage people to regularly perform a self-check and to attend their screenings, because there is no substitute for the benefits of early detection and treatment of Breast Cancer.
- Who were your primary sources of support during your breast cancer journey? What kind of support systems do you find most helpful?
For me, I relied heavily on my husband during and after treatment. As immigrants to Australia, we do not have family nearby, and as I underwent treatment while the borders were closed, we sadly did not have access to our relatives for physical support.
My husband has been and remains my biggest support and encouragement. Even going so far to shave his own head when I lost my hair as a side effect of Chemotherapy.
We are also lucky enough to live in a wonderful community and have amazing friends that provided support and encouragement.
- Is there anything you wish you had known or someone had told you when you were first diagnosed?
I wish someone had told me that I was stronger that I could ever imagine, and more capable than I could ever have dreamt. Starting off on this journey I had so much fear in my heart, and I did not have faith in my own ability to deal with what lay ahead. I feared that I would not have the strength to deal with life’s challenges while undergoing treatment.
My greatest fear was that I would be weak at a time when I was called on to be stronger than ever before. Now I know that I am both strong and capable, and I am proud of the path that I have travelled.
- Was your employer supportive? Did you have to take a leave of absence or did your work role change after your diagnosis?
Working for Rio Tinto is a privilege, and I consistently express my profound gratitude to the company and my leaders for their kindness and care. I felt supported and safe at work, which was a comfort.
I did choose to work full time (though at reduced capacity) in my normal role while undergoing treatment. I did so on a Work-From-Home basis, as did most people given that Covid restrictions were still in place. This is where flexible work arrangements were a blessing, as I was able to work around my treatment schedule.
For me my job gave me something to look forward to every day and helped me maintain a level of normality in my life. I tried to keep my normal routines, and work was part of that. I took time off when it was needed, rested when I needed to focus on recovery, and had peace of mind knowing that my leaders supported me every step of the way.
- What resources or information would you recommend to someone recently diagnosed to empower and support them?
There are many government and charitable organisations in Australia, and around the world, that do some really great work on this space. I would encourage those touched by Breast Cancer to seek advice and support from a trusted and reputable organisation.
- You’re currently an IWiM Advisory Council member. How does this role intersect with your breast cancer advocacy?
For me, at the core of both roles is a need to work towards a future that holds value, dignity and promise for all, regardless of gender. These topics cut across so many aspects of our daily lives and deserve to be discussed.
- Finally, October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. What’s something you think people are not really talking about that you’d like to bring attention to?
I find that as women we’re told that we’re only at risk of Breast Cancer when we’re over 40, when that is not always the case. Many of us get diagnosed younger, and potentially too late because we think we don’t need to be vigilant. We need to be educated on performing a self-check for lumps and abnormalities from a much younger age.
Similarly, there is a general belief that Breast Cancer only affects women, but men also get diagnosed. Cancer does not discriminate.
The mining industry faces specific challenges related to breast cancer. While there is not a lot of data currently available, women in mining face increased risk factors for breast cancer including:
- Exposure to carcinogens – Higher risk due to prolonged contact with chemicals and substances found in mining operations.
- Night shift work – Disrupted sleep patterns and exposure to artificial light at night can disrupt hormone regulation, increasing breast cancer risks.
- Limited access to healthcare – Remote locations of mining sites can limit access to timely healthcare services and screenings.
Inclusive workplace design plays a crucial role in fostering a supportive environment for breast cancer survivors. By understanding the impact of breast cancer and implementing inclusive practices, organisations can create a workplace that promotes awareness, supports survivors, and drives positive change. Some of the actions that can be taken include:
- Implementing workplace policies that minimize exposure to carcinogens and provide necessary protective equipment. This includes having access to PPE that is safe and fits perfectly which can be found on our female PPE directory.
- Offering workplace accommodations such as flexible work arrangements and ergonomic workstations, to support survivors during and after treatment.
- Enabling access to resources such as support groups, counselling services, and comprehensive healthcare coverage tailored to the specific needs of breast cancer survivors.
Raising breast cancer awareness in the mining industry is crucial for the well-being of employees and their families. By implementing preventative measures, offering support, and organising impactful awareness campaigns, we can reduce the incidence of breast cancer and improve the quality of life for mining industry workers.