Erica Packer cancer battle: Ex-wife of billionaire James Packer reveals dark shadow that’s lingered over the women of her family
Erica’s mum Sheelagh and almost all the female relatives on her mother’s side died from the disease, with her sister Jo Hunter narrowly surviving her battle after having a double mastectomy.
The former model and singer has now teamed up with Jo to investigate their family’s tragic medical history and find out what’s causing the genetic curse.
The sisters’ research found 18 relatives out of 21 they looked at died from cancer, 14 of whom had breast cancer.
Erica, who gets tested twice a year, had a terrifying scare last summer when doctors found a lump in her breast that turned out to be a false alarm.
‘You know, you’re suddenly smacked in the face with your own mortality and, is this something or is it nothing at all? Australian Story program.
‘And it’s something families like ours, they go through it every six months,’ she said.
Jo said her sister was ‘just lucky at that time … that it was a false alarm’.
But the threat of breast cancer casts a constant dark shadow over the pair, their own daughters and their brother’s daughters.
Making their concerns worse is that no-one knows the cause linking the cases in their family.
Their mum didn’t have the BRCA 1 or 2 genes, which are the two known gene mutations that put a person at a higher risk of breast cancer.
This means the sisters don’t carry those genes either, but they subsequently discovered there are a number of other gene mutations that could cause breast cancer.
Erica and Jo are strong supporters of the National Breast Cancer Foundation, which funds scientific research at the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre in Melbourne.
There, scientists and doctors are looking at pinpointing the hereditary genes responsible for breast cancer plaguing thousands of Australian families, including theirs.
The year 2011 proved to be an awful one for the family, with their mum dying from breast cancer – having been diagnosed and first treated for it in 1999 – and Jo being diagnosed at the age of 39.
‘As the saying goes when it rains, it pours. It poured,’ Jo said. ‘At the time, I’d been screening for breast cancer since I was 35.
‘And so I had a clear mammogram in July and then by January, I had three tumours in one of my breasts.’
‘My sister is one of my best friends in the world and watching her go into that operation and not knowing if her cancer had spread,’ Erica recalled.
But Jo remained confident despite her initial fear.
‘It was pretty scary because I had been so diligent with the screening,’ she said.
‘I just never believed for one minute that I was going to die or I was going to be really ill … I just knew I’d be OK.’
The early detection thanks to her six-monthly testing had proved crucial to her survival.
Jo didn’t have to have chemotherapy, but she underwent a bilateral mastectomy because of the high incidence of breast cancer in her family.
‘After I had the mastectomy I started the breast reconstruction process and I was very happy with my reconstruction,’ she said.
She was so happy, in fact, that she often talks to other women who’ve had a breast cancer diagnosis to help give them hope about the outcome.
‘Jo, when she meets with women, she actually shows you what a reconstruction looks,’ Erica said.
‘Like when people were getting diagnosed and they were scared and facing a mastectomy and stuff, she would go around and basically show them her boobs.
‘Give them a peep show of like, look, they can still look great … the peep show queen. Who knew?’
Jo added that ‘there was a joke at one stage that there wasn’t a person left in Sydney that hadn’t seen my breasts’.
Their family history with the disease has led to the sisters supporting the breast cancer cause.
‘When mum first got her prognosis going into all those chemo rooms and seeing all the patients and seeing what they go through.
‘(And) how everyone is so brave and the nurses are so brave and and friendly, and I think it just really became part of our family,’ Erica said.
Erica and Jo are hoping that all the testing they have done, including DNA sequencing of their genes will help find the cause behind their family’s tragic medical history.
‘There’s … four little girls in the next generation that will be handy for them to know what’s going on,’ Jo said.
The Breast Cancer Network Australia can be contacted at 1800 500 258.