After years of fundraising for cancer services and supplies in Windsor-Essex, Brooke Spitse is now the one in need of the resources.
For several years, Spitse worked at the Windsor Regional Cancer Centre and most recently, she joined the cancer centre's foundation as a fundraiser. Following a stage one breast cancer diagnosis, Spitse is the patient she was advocating for not too long ago.
"Last year, I was raising funds for breast reconstruction equipment and this year I actually needed that equipment myself. Last year, we also fundraised for new chairs for the waiting rooms and this year my dad was sitting in one at my chemo appointment with me. It's so surreal," said Spitse, who lives in Essex.
Four months after giving birth, breastfeeding troubles and a lump in Spitse's chest — one she at first thought was mastitis, a breast tissue infection — brought her to the doctor's office.
Following a series of tests, Spitse was diagnosed with breast cancer in January. Since then, she's been sharing her experience with cancer as a new mom in a series of Facebook posts for the Windsor Cancer Centre Foundation.
"Talking about it for me makes it seem less scary, so I'm hoping by me sharing all of these experiences having the inside knowledge and now the patient inside knowledge, I hope to make it less scary for everyone," she said.
"It's helpful to know I can look back on this one day, hopefully when I'm somewhere far away from the word cancer with myself and I can look back and see how far I've come and hopefully see how many people I helped."
Spitse's personal posts and those shared on the foundation's Facebook page have received hundreds of likes and comments.
Some of the posts point toward cancer services that Windsor patients used to have to travel outside of the region to receive, such as breast reconstruction surgery — which Brooke received a few months ago.
"I talked to a woman who had to go to Toronto just 10 years ago and now it's here. And after the surgery let me tell you I can't imagine sitting in a car for four hours ... to get home," she said.
She also told CBC News that she's balancing her diagnosis, while also caring for a newborn.
"I quickly learned that I needed to make myself a priority as well as my son, if I'm not OK then I can't help him," she said.
"I try not to give myself the mom guilt for the time that I'm kind of missing out and the days that I'm at appointments versus being with him, but I said it in one of my posts and I really mean it, I just need to have this one year where I kind of take time for myself and then I'll have many more years where I can hopefully not have to worry about myself so much."
Registered midwife with the Midwifery Collective of Essex County, Corey Bryant, said she believes Spitse's situation is a rare occurrence.
She said rapid hormonal changes during postpartum, as well as changes throughout breastfeeding "changes the cellular structure of the breast over a short period of time."
When body cells change so quickly in a short period of time, Bryant said there's always a risk of developing a cancerous growth.
Typically, Bryant said the breast tissue will be firm and sore as the body ramps up milk production and regulating it. She said these changes can be accompanied by a low fever or irregular bumps in the breast.
"One of the reasons why a postpartum cancer could go undetected is because some of the symptoms of postpartum breast cancer mimic some of the normal kind of findings that we have when we're breastfeeding, specifically mastitis," she said, adding this inflammation can lead to a tender area on the breast, a low fever and flu-like symptoms.
Bryant said abnormal signs a woman should look out for include something that presents as mastitis, but doesn't clear up with antibiotics, or a lump that feels fixed to chest wall or change in appearance of the breast like dimpling of the skin or something that looks like an "orange peel."
As for Spitse, she said she's glad she caught it early enough, but she'll still need chemotherapy for the next several months. By this time next year, she's hopeful that she'll be cancer-free.