October is Breast Cancer Awareness month. Catherine Hennessy shares the story of her diagnosis and treatment journey
Every day, seven women in Ireland are diagnosed with breast cancer. My story began one night when my then two-year-old boy hopped into bed in the middle of the night for “the cuddles”.
I remember trying to make myself comfortable when I felt a hard lump at the side of my right breast. I didn’t immediately think too much as breast cancer doesn’t run in my family. In the morning I examined myself in the shower and found it difficult to find anything so I figured I was okay, but to reassure myself I made an appointment with my GP.
My GP was great and felt it was a cyst but said she wasn’t taking any chances and referred me to Vincent’s Hospital where I met with the surgeon and was immediately sent for a mammogram, ultrasound and biopsies. When it comes to cancer, you’re in a constant cycle of waiting: waiting for the diagnosis, waiting for the scans, the tests, the surgery, the results. Waiting is like a vacuum where you try to replace fear with courage, turning negative thoughts positive, praying, bargaining and hoping.
I will never forget April 19, 2019 (Good Friday) when, at 3pm, my husband and I sat stoically and fearfully in front of my consultant to hear the earth-shattering news that I had stage three breast cancer. Our life paused in that horrible, awful moment where we desperately wanted the words to stop, the calm, soft, gentle explanations to stop, to just please stop!
I would have to start chemotherapy as soon as possible so I was referred to an oncologist and the consultant would see me again once chemotherapy was completed to discuss the surgery. Chemotherapy is now often given before surgery to shrink the tumour so it can be removed with less extensive surgery and also doctors can see how the cancer responds to it.
My oncologist met with us the following week and we were at last given a plan. I was to have chemotherapy every week for 20 weeks; if I responded well to treatment, I would be referred back to my surgeon for surgery. Followed by 4 weeks of radiotherapy with chemotherapy medication for a further six months.
Everything seemed so overwhelming suddenly. My main thought on my way home after leaving my oncologist was how we were going to get through this next year of my life. It just wasn’t about me it was also about my husband and two children.
The following Monday, I had my first cycle of chemotherapy. My sister, Linda, who was with me every step of the way, accompanied me and this might sound hard to believe but my first day was a good day. The waiting was now over and this was the first day on my road to recovery.
In the middle of the many moments of fear and the tears that were shed I was surrounded with so much support and love that when I look back now it was this positive energy that kept me optimistic and hopeful throughout.
My colleagues in Mullingar Hospital were amazing and I am continually blessed with their support, love and prayers. I even had my own ‘rewards chart’ that my sister, Linda, organised with family, cousins and friends. For every week of my treatment, I received a present in the post. I smile when I think back to the day Mary, our wonderful postlady, asked me had I a big birthday!
Keeping routine at home was so important to me. Unfortunately, when there is a sick person in a house, bills don’t stop. So, it was important that my wonderful husband, who is self-employed, was able to work as best he could and, thanks to the incredible people in our community, family and circle of friends this was made possible.
These people arrived at my door at 5:45 in the morning to bring me for treatment; others dropped home baking and dinners and just about everyone I knew was praying for me including our super parish priest, Fr. Tom Murray.
It was on my third week of chemotherapy that I noticed chunks of my hair were starting to fall out in the shower so it was then time to start thinking about getting my head shaved. When my hair went, I looked sick. I looked like I had cancer. But my hair came back.
I was always honest with my daughter, Aisling, who was then six. I always felt the car was a good place for these little chats where she listened, was able to take things in and then ask questions if she needed to.
She referred to my breast cancer as my “dodgy boob” so I was always getting lots of questions like “how’s your dodgy boob today Mammy?” Once she knew the medicine would make my hair fall out, she was more interested about what kind of wig I would be wearing.
I spent a lot of time in bed that summer; the tiredness came on so fast and rather than trying to fight it, the only thing was to ‘go with it’ and sleep. Thanks to my amazing childminder, Eileen, and the beautiful ladies living locally, I was able to do just that. They landed at my door, whisked my two ickle angels off to the very best play dates and treated them as if they were their own. I will never, ever forget this kindness.
The weeks flew by, and there were weeks when I couldn’t get my treatment due to my bloods being low; if your blood cell levels are too low the doctors will have to put off your treatment until the levels have recovered. Having a low white blood cell count can weaken your immune system, which increases your risk of infection.
My sickest and lowest point was probably towards the end of my chemo when I had to be admitted to Mullingar Hospital and I missed out on my son Gerald’s first day of preschool. But thanks to the wonderful staff in Mullingar, I got back on track, finished chemo and continued my road to recovery.
The day I finished my intravenous chemo, I had a repeat mammogram and CT scan to see how I had responded to chemo and the following week we were back in the room with the surgeon where the breast care nurse gave us the amazing news that I had responded well to chemotherapy and I was booked in the following month for a lumpectomy and some lymph node removal (to see had the cancer spread beyond the breast).
Lumpectomy is a surgery to remove cancer from the breast. Unlike a mastectomy, a lumpectomy removes only the tumour and a small rim of normal tissue around it.
During the weeks before the lumpectomy I was free from all meds, which was such a welcome break for my mind and my body. During this time, I organised ‘the most amazing Halloween party ever, Mammy’ for my kids and their friends.
Throughout different milestones of this journey I availed of the wonderful support and holistic therapies provided by LARCC Cancer Support Centre in Multyfarnham.
On November 7, I had a lumpectomy and recovered well, however, when we met with the surgeon the following week, he advised me that there was lymph node involvement, which means some of the nodes tested positive.
Due to this result, he confirmed he would have to do more surgery the following week and remove all my lymph glands. To be honest, I was dejected to hear this news and shocked because I felt so well, but I had to listen to the experts and proceed with their recommendations.
This second surgery was a much more extensive procedure; I was 10 days in hospital and had to come home with a drain and a lot of discomfort. But thankfully, once again with huge support from my GP, Grainne (physio), Marie (public health nurse), my pharmacy, the teachers in both my children’s schools, our families and friends, I recovered well.
The next part of my journey was the 20 days of radiotherapy. Radiation therapy is usually given after lumpectomy to get rid of any cancer cells that might be left in or around the breast. As my mother in West Cork often referred to, the great people of Longford and Westmeath were there again to do the car trips and once more I was treated like a queen!
The radiotherapy was followed by six, two-week cycles of oral chemotherapy. Thank God I experienced no particular side effects during the radiotherapy, except tiredness towards the very end. In July of this year, I finished all treatment and once again had all my scans and on July 11, we won the cancer battle when I as given the all clear!
As I write this, it is now October 2020 and I am cancer free since July. I will never forget the life-changing, emotional rollercoaster that I have lived through since March 2019.
I am a young west-Cork woman, living in Ballinalee with my husband Pascal and our two amazing children Aisling and Gerald.
Even now as my body and mind heals from the traumatic time, my abiding memories will not be the diagnosis and treatment but the way in which our family, my Mam and Dad, friends and the people of Longford and Westmeath wrapped their arms and hearts around me and kept me in their thoughts and prayers, which made each and every step of this journey possible. We won this battle together, so from the bottom of my heart thank you all so very much.
If you are reading this story and facing your own battle, no matter what that is, please do not do it alone, reach out and let people in, to support you on your journey.
October is breast cancer awareness month, so paint it pink this October and help beat breast cancer. Please check out www.cancer.ie and www.cancersupport.ie.