Saturday 3 December 2016

'I insisted on having a mammogram'

Isabel O'Donovan was diagnosed with breast cancer at just 34, after finding a pea-sized lump on her breast. She found treatment very hard but would like to tell anyone facing a cancer diagnosis not to lose hope.

Arlene Harris

Published 04/10/2016 | 02:30

Isabel O’Donovan, 40, was 34 with two young children when she was diagnosed with breast cancer Photo: Emma Jervis Photography
Isabel O’Donovan, 40, was 34 with two young children when she was diagnosed with breast cancer Photo: Emma Jervis Photography

Irish women have a one in nine chance of developing breast cancer, but as the Irish Cancer Society highlights Breast Cancer Awareness Month with its 'Paint it Pink' campaign, it is also keen to make people aware of the fact that survival rates are on the rise and currently 85pc of those diagnosed with the disease are living over and beyond five years.

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Isabel O'Donovan from Cork is one of these statistics.

"I was 34 when I noticed the lump," says Isabel (now 40). "I found it myself, while lying down in bed one night. It was like a frozen pea at the base of my breast, at the edge and was really tiny - so small, in fact, that I could only feel it lying down - when I stood up, it was gone.

"But even though it was so small and seemed insignificant, I went to the doctor the next morning because I was really worried."

At first the doctor thought it might be a cyst.

"But a few weeks later I insisted on being referred for a mammogram as I still had the lump. This was followed very swiftly by an ultrasound and biopsy and I was diagnosed with breast cancer on July 19 2011 - one month after visiting my doctor."

Isabel, who is married to David and has two sons Tom (12) and Josh (9), was devastated at the diagnosis.

"I suppose I was in shock. My boys were just six and three at the time and no one knew how serious things were as doctors needed to operate before they could get an accurate diagnosis."

"I had a six-hour operation in September followed by six months of chemotherapy," she says.

"Then I went on to have six weeks of radiotherapy and after that a full year of hormone therapy.

"Treatment was very hard and seemed to go on forever, particularly as I live a two-hour drive from the hospital so that made it even more difficult.

"And of course, I had all of the usual side effects; I lost my hair, I was tired, weak and nauseous but I never actually got sick.

"I felt sorry for myself at times and cried a lot when I was alone. My mom helped me the most, driving me for treatment and making sure I had food during the daytime. I had to keep going for the children, which was good in a way as it made me get up every day.

"Other women who had gone through it before me helped me too which was great, as they understood.

"I also worked one day a week which gave me something to focus on.

"It just seemed to go on forever at the time and it was long and tough. But there was light at the end of the tunnel."

Although her treatment was arduous, the Cork woman, who owns and runs Issie's Handmade Chocolate in Castletownbere, feels that it changed her for the better and would encourage anyone who is facing up to a cancer diagnosis not to lose hope.

"Once treatment completely finished, life went back to normal, if there is a normal after cancer," she says. "I just got on with life and tried not to dwell on it - although in reality my body had been through an awful lot and it was a year or two before I felt myself again.

"I believe that going through a cancer diagnosis changes both your body and mind - your outlook on life changes, for the better. I feel fantastic today. I am more humble, understanding and have far deeper empathy for people.

"I have no time for trivia. I am more aware of other people's suffering and the little things in life don't bother me anymore. I believe I am a better person after what I have been through.

"I am extremely grateful to be alive and every day is a blessing.

"So my advice to anyone who has just been diagnosed is to realise that although it will be difficult, you will get through it. It won't go on forever and you will be a better person at the end of your journey.

"There will be good days and bad days and you will laugh and cry. So do what is best for you and nobody else - we all have different experiences, so just listen to your heart and you will be fine."

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