Aussie mum diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer shares the 'strange' warning sign that led to diagnosis

Paige Swalue
"I'm just going to throw everything at this because I don't ever want to do this again." Photo credit: @paige_siobhan / Instagram

An Australian mum has candidly revealed how a moment of "strange" behaviour by her infant daughter led to her being diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer. 

In December 2019, Paige Swalue - a then-29-year-old hairstylist - had been attempting to feed six-month-old Daisy when she noticed her baby was refusing to suckle from her right breast, which had been her favoured side. 

Confused, Swalue switched Daisy to her left breast and she immediately began feeding, despite rejecting her preferred side moments earlier. Another attempt to latch Daisy onto her right breast also proved unsuccessful. 

"It was really strange that she didn't feed that one day, from that side," Swalue, now 32, told 7News in a recent interview. 

However, it wasn't the first odd occurrence to do with her breasts. Previously, Swalue had noticed some changes in their size and texture, with one becoming larger than the other and her skin turning dimply, like "orange peel". 

But the differences weren't met with concern by Swalue's midwives, who told her to keep an eye out for further changes, but noted it was "pretty common". 

Despite the changes in her breasts being largely dismissed, Swalue was perturbed by Daisy's refusal to feed, and knew something was "not quite right".

As she was unable to express, her right breast had become engorged, she told 7News. To try and avoid developing mastitis, Swalue began using a pump and massaging her breast - which is when she noticed a "rock-hard little lump" in her tissue. 

After getting the lump checked by her GP, Swalue was sent for an ultrasound, which confirmed the mass was 2.5cm. She was then directed to get a biopsy. 

It was also around this time that Swalue discovered her family carried a harmful variant of the BRCA1 gene: people who inherit a mutated variant have increased risks of cancers, including breast and ovarian cancer.

After undergoing biopsies of her lump and lymph nodes, Swalue was told that cancer had been found in the latter, and the mum was quickly sent for an MRI as well as CT scans to determine if the cancer had metastasised. 

On February 21, 2020, Swalue was diagnosed with stage 3, grade 3 triple negative breast cancer that had spread beyond the breast to her lymph nodes. As per 7News, the mass had also aggressively increased in size and now measured 8.5cm.

"My surgeon said, 'Yes, you do have breast cancer', but she followed up quite quickly with, 'You're treatable'," Swalue recalled to the outlet. 

"I was so terrified that I would be deemed terminal, so the first words that came out of my mouth were, 'Oh, that's great'."

Although Swalue said she struggled to cope with the diagnosis at first, she soon realised she had a choice: "I'm either going to be angry for the rest of my life, or I'm going to just put my big girl pants on and I'm going to fight this and be here for my kid."

Swalue, who began chemotherapy two weeks after the diagnosis, was told she would also need to undergo fertility treatment if she and her partner, Jake, wanted more children in the future, as the chemotherapy would prompt early menopause.  

"I was told that we probably wouldn't have another child naturally because this type of chemo was pretty brutal and it was very, very strong," she told 7News.

She and Jake were recommended to see a fertility specialist, where they were able to create four embryos out of 12 eggs. 

Her five-month course of high-dose chemotherapy proved complicated, as Swalue - who then resided in Port Lincoln, South Australia - was required to travel to Adelaide every three weeks for her treatment. Weeks after her first round, COVID-19 saw South Australia placed under lockdown, with outbound flights cancelled. Swalue and Jake had no choice but to drive to and from the treatment centre in a day - a 14-hour return journey. 

"We were having to make the drive to Adelaide and back in one day because it just wasn't safe for me to spend the night in a hotel in Adelaide, because I'm so immunocompromised," she told the outlet.

After undergoing intensive chemotherapy for almost half a year, Swalue also underwent a double mastectomy with a stage 3 lymph node clearance.

Although no cancer cells were detected, specialists decided that due to the size of the tumour at diagnosis and her carrying the harmful variant of the BRCA1 gene, Swalue should also undergo three weeks of radiation. 

"I had my beautiful daughter and my husband and I was like, 'You know what, I'm just going to throw everything at this because I don't ever want to do this again'," she said.

Seven months after her diagnosis, Swalue was declared cancer-free - and in January 2021, she made the shocking discovery that she had naturally conceived - despite being deemed to be in early menopause. 

Their second daughter and "little miracle", Dawn, was born on September 20, 2021, and in December 2022, the couple welcomed their third child, a son named Sami. 

Swalue is now considered free of cancer, but can't be officially declared as in remission for a further five years. 

"I'm so set on getting to that five-year remission mark - because I have to. I have to be that positive story that I really struggled to find when I was diagnosed," she told 7News. 

That five-year milestone will also coincide with her and Jake's 10-year wedding anniversary, she said, telling the outlet that the couple have planned to renew their vows and celebrate "the feeling of finally being free from the burden of waiting".