Chema and Anna: How one breast cancer diagnosis saved the others life

Journal – 15 June 2023
By Anna Dutton Lourie

For Breast Cancer Awareness Month (October 2022) Bower co-directors Anna and Chema, both graduates of breast cancer and treatment, were proud to support Sussan Group  in their campaign to amplify the voice of the wonderful BCNA and to support them as a charity partner.

If you know Chema you know that pink is not her preferred habitat… nor it this kind of attention… but Anna was happy! Our talented friend Tamara Howell art directed the photoshoot.  You can read the full story of how Chema’s breast cancer diagnosis saved Anna’s life here and a transcript is below.

We hope our story will inspire you to become a regular breast checker and spread the word!

In the time between waking up this morning and going to sleep tonight, 57 Australians will be told they have breast cancer. The same will happen tomorrow and the following day too, making breast cancer the most common cancer affecting Australian women.

As part of Breast Cancer Awareness month, we are amplifying the voice and stories of our charity partner, Breast Cancer Network Australia (BCNA).

Here, best friends, business partners and “breast cancer graduates” share how one shock diagnosis saved the other’s life.

Chema Bould was in Mexico, enjoying one of those blissfully long showers you only have when you are on holiday.
She wasn’t intending to do a breast check but happened to stretch in a particular position and suddenly felt a small, hard lump under her fingertips near her armpit.

“I didn’t get a great feeling; it felt slightly ominous from the start,” she says.

Chema, a founding partner of Bower Architecture, had just turned 40. She notes lumps can be hard to feel at that age, as your breast tissue is still dense and changes during your menstrual cycle.

“When I felt this lump, it just felt different,” she says.

There are moments in life when your whole world pivots in a new direction, with no adjustment period between the old and the new. That’s what it was like for Chema when she arrived back in Australia a few days later. Her days were suddenly filled with appointments, scans, mammograms, biopsies and then, breast surgery.

“It’s great that we have a health system where things can move that fast, but it is a full-on life change,” Chema says.

Thankfully, Chema’s business partner and best friend, Anna Dutton, took the reins of the business, allowing Chema the time she needed for treatment and recovery.

“There wasn’t much of a handover; Anna just said, ‘Yep, I’m on it’,” Chema laughs.

“It was amazing to have a supportive business partner like Anna to keep things moving. We both feel lucky and relieved that we had great advisors at the start of our business and had income protection insurance, because suddenly the business was in a situation where we had a director out of action for about a year,” she says.

The best friends initially met on one of their first days of Architecture School at Melbourne University. They would go on to travel together and even lived abroad in London at the same time. Then, during a fateful dinner at Cicciolina in St Kilda, they began scribbling down the first ideas for how Bower Architecture could look.

Eighteen years later, they are still best friends, and Bower is among the most respected architecture firms in the country. But, of all the adventures they thought they would share in life, breast cancer was not one.

Chema had just returned to work, less than a year after she was diagnosed, when Anna discovered a lump.

“Chema was just over 40 when she felt a lump, and because of her experience, I became a regular breast checker,” Anna says.

“I was exactly the same age as Chema had been and was also on holiday, at the snow, having a shower, when I felt it.”

“A little part of me felt like statistically, Chema had copped the bullet for us. She had been my best mate and business partner and had this journey and was just back at work and feeling good again.”

“I thought, ‘What are the chances? I couldn’t possibly have breast cancer too.”

After a few days of sweating on it, Anna rang her GP, who referred her to the Alfred Hospital. Because Anna’s mother had also had breast cancer, Anna qualified for free mammograms and had one just 10 months earlier.

“I had mistakenly felt some comfort in that,” Anna admits.

Within just two weeks, she underwent a mastectomy.

“It was a rollercoaster. I was recently married, so the mastectomy was followed by fertility preservation before I started chemo.
While it is a shock, you are suddenly on this express train of treatments, appointments, and scans. You are immediately part of this world; you’ve joined a club no one wants to join.”

“To be honest, and I say this all the time, Chema saved my life. If it weren’t for her journey, I never would have been a checker and never would have found this lump — and mine was quite big by the time I found it.”

October marks Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and this year our charity partner Breast Cancer Network Australia is using their campaign to raise awareness and ensure all Australians have access to the best breast cancer care. For Anna, the support of BCNA was part of her journey from the beginning.

“As soon as I had my diagnosis, Chema handed me her BCNA My Journey box,” Anna says. Since then, the box has been turned into a My Journey app filled with trusted, evidence-based information and insights from others diagnosed with breast cancer.

“I learnt so much and understood more from that resource,” Anna says, adding that she also received a BCNA My Care Kit following her mastectomy, which included with a soft bra, little pillow, and a bag to carry my drainage bottles in.”

On one particularly emotional day, Anna says she also called the BCNA Helpline.

“I felt like this burden to everyone with this terrible news, especially my loved ones,” she says.

“I was a mess and didn’t want to cry with anyone I knew. The BCNA Helpline became an outlet — having someone I could call and talk to about my fears, cry, and have them understand.”

Emotional isolation is something a lot of women struggle with during a cancer journey. As part of Breast Cancer Awareness Month this October, every Sussan fitting room across the country will have the BCNA Helpline printed in them.

As well as the helpline, Chema says having a “gatekeeper” can also help women navigate this time in their lives.

“At our first meeting, my oncologist gave me a fantastic piece of advice: get a gatekeeper”.

“When you have a diagnosis, everyone wants to be incredibly helpful, but keeping everyone informed can be exhausting. Every time you tell someone, it’s emotionally draining,” Chema says.

“People want to be helpful, but if everyone brings you a lasagne and your fridge is overflowing with them, your kids might want something else, “she laughs. “And it’s hard to be direct with people when their intentions are good.”

“So, a gatekeeper is the conduit for all the communications. Anna was my gatekeeper.”

“I was able to tell them, ‘No more lasagne!’,” Anna jokes.

Chema adds, “Your palette changes a lot during chemo and your gut changes, so there’s some things that you like to eat and others you don’t. Some people might go on specific diet too, so having someone who can say, “This is what she needs most, and this is when”, so again not everything comes on the same Tuesday, is incredibly helpful.”

Anna also had a gatekeeper who would update her friends on her recovery via email.

“You need someone who can be firm and say, “No, Anna’s not ready for visitors at the moment,” she says, adding that sometimes just the simple gesture of reaching out is enough.

“When someone in your community has a diagnosis, in my experience, sending a text message of support gives
you energy.”

“Frame it in a way where you are not putting any imposition on the person to respond — and often they won’t, but they will read it.”
Anna says a “love delivery” can also boost spirits.

“Some of the best things were left on the doorstep: a couple of magazines, flowers, crafts people made. Mystery packages are good and just a sign someone is thinking of you, which gives you extra strength.

While every breast cancer journey is different, the experience seemed less isolating for Anna by having a best
friend and business partner go through it.

“Cancer is shitty, and you don’t want it, but I guess I knew what the picture looked like because Chema had gone through it, and while it wasn’t a pretty picture, I knew what to expect, which helped manage the fear,” she says.

“I could ask her, ‘What is this scan for?’ and ‘How does this biopsy feel?’ And she’d say, ‘Ooh, gotta tell ya, that one doesn’t feel great’. She wouldn’t sugar coat it,” Anna laughs.

“She also passed on little chemo tricks, like mouth moisturisers or the benefit of exercise and other ways to manage symptoms and side effects.”

Both admit that cancer has changed them. As a result of the cancer journey, their priorities have shifted and their values have adjusted. Cancer revealed kindness in others, resilience in themselves and how time spent with the people they love is most important. Among the learnings that most surprised them is how having breast cancer has come to inform and inspire their work as architects.

“It’s made us better,” Chema says.

“We have come to appreciate how we can enhance the quality of life through architecture and interior design,” she says. “Our work is very much about being connected to nature — and you realise that nature is quite restorative when you are sick.”

Anna adds that space, light and bringing in more sunshine all brought her comfort while at home during her

“I also had a tree outside my bedroom window that I would stare at for hours. Creating a view, even as simple
as a tree canopy, can help blur the lines between inside and out,” she says.

They also noted that the care they received in treatment is something they have tried to translate into their own business.

“We feel like, in architecture, we are providing a service to make our client’s life better, and a project run smoothly,” Chema says.

Chema and Anna modelled the Pink for Good collection to celebrate the partnership, which we also hope will shine a light on breast cancer care and what it means for Australians affected by breast cancer.

“It was super fun and slightly awkward,” Chema laughs.

“But it was nice moment to pause and reflect on what we have gone through and how fortunate we feel to have had each other’s support,” Anna adds.

“We feel like this collection and talking about it will help other women.”

And while breast cancer changed and challenged their sense of self, they have found a unique way to positively embrace their post-cancer identities.

“We talk about ourselves as “cancer graduates” because it was hard work, we learnt so much and are fortunate to graduate,” says Anna.

“We also don’t want it to define us. Even though it has been a significant chapter in our lives, and we shared this profound experience, I think we are so much more than just breast cancer survivors.”

BCNA’s Helpline provides a free confidential telephone and email service for people diagnosed with breast cancer, their family and friends. Their experienced team can help with your questions and concerns and direct you to relevant resources and services. Call 1800 500 258 or email