'I'm 36, I've had both breasts removed, I'm experiencing early menopause - but I'm happy to be alive'
In the space of two years, Nicola Cahill has had a double mastectomy, 15 lymph nodes removed, muscles extracted from her back for reconstructive surgeries, four months of chemotherapy and seven weeks of radiotherapy.
The symptoms that led to her diagnosis of Stage 3 breast cancer presented themselves just three weeks before the 34-year-old fit woman found out she was sick.
“I had been doing training for Hell and Back in February 2014 but I was only 2km in to the race and an overwhelming tiredness just came over me – I just had to lie there,” she told Independent.ie.
The wave passed and Nicola went on to finish the race but – having run 10k regularly and a member of a kickboxing class for years – this was her first indication that something was significantly wrong.
Over the next two weeks, Nicola felt pains in her breast while she was exercising which she initially put down to a pulled pectoral muscle.
“I was on the treadmill in the gym one evening and my breast felt like it was on fire. In my heart and soul I knew there was something there was going on,” she said.
Nicola took advantage of some time off from her role in the bank during the Easter period to see her GP – a young doctor who coincidentally had a 34-year-old who had been recently diagnosed with breast cancer herself. Which is what motivated her to push the hospital for an earlier appointment for Nicola after feeling a hardening in her breast, Nicola believes.
“I was in work the next week and when I rang the hospital, I was told that the consultant had looked at the referral from the doctor and determined that I wasn’t of concern and pencilled me in for an appointment two months later.
“When I told my GP of the progress with the hospital, she made a call herself and the appointment got pushed up to the very next day.”
That day, Nicola got dressed for work, intending on going into work in the bank after her early morning hospital appointment. She ended up staying there for nine hours – during which she had a mammogram, a biopsy and an MRI.
“When the doctor called the consultant in after an initial check, I just knew,” said Nicola. “I had to wait a week for the results but the consultant pretty much told me right there – it wasn’t looking good. I was on my own when I found out.”
“My Mam was the only person I told that I was getting checked that morning. The worst thing about that day was when I called her afterwards and I could hear her screaming ‘Not again!’”.
Nicola’s younger sister was very sick with unrelated lymphoma some years before her own diagnosis but had subsequently gotten the all-clear. However, family on her paternal side had a history with various types of cancer which led this young woman to have her second breast removed.
“I decided in October of last year to have the other mastectomy. The reconstruction is done in the same operation but muscles are taken from your back so I have two big scars on my back and am trying to build up the strength in my back which has become very weak.
“I didn’t care about getting rid of the natural breast. The danger of the cancer coming back...there was no point in keeping it.”
Nicola will need at least two more surgeries on her breasts – “vanity reasons”, she laughs – to have a bigger implant in the one that had the cancer as the difference is quite noticeable. The nipples will also need to be reconstructed.
But the worst thing for this young woman is the hormone injections that she gets every month where “the ovaries are essentially turned off”.
“The menopausal symptoms are unbelievable – the fatigue is like nothing I’ve experienced (and I’ve gone through chemo!), the joint pain, the sweats, the insomnia. I’ve a new found sympathy for my Mam!”
“I keep asking the doctors about the possibility of me having a child and answer is never black and white... but the reality is I won’t be finished taking this medication until I’m 39 and I’ll be “knocking on a bit”. As much as it’s blunt, ultimately I’m just happy to stay alive. I’m happy to be here.”
Although she was advised not to create any firm bonds in the cancer ward by the oncology team, Nicola said it was very hard not to when similar women are going through the same thing.
“I was aware that people can die from it. But meeting all those girls – many fit women in their 20s and 30s – has been a blessing for me. They have helped me more mentally than anyone could.”
Nicola’s friend Elaine died last November at the age of 31 – her other friend Ann died just this week at the age of 51. Both were diagnosed at the same time as Nicola but suffered recurrences.
“For the most part I’ve been positive - I’ve tried my best to. And sometimes I cry for four or five hours when I find it difficult to handle the stress of it returning – or thinking of my friends who have passed too soon,” Nicola said.
“Chemotherapy was nearly like a security blanket. It’s the aftermath that’s worse, when people think that you’re ok but you have so much other invisible worries and symptoms that you have to constantly deal with.”
However, in the last few months, Nicola has gone travelling to Rome, Gran Canaria, Madrid – trips she would never have felt able to embark on the previous year.
Last year, Nicola took part in the Marie Keating campaign ‘Out the Other Side: Stories of Breast Cancer Survival’ which promoted awareness through a poster display in St Stephens Green – and later at the gardens in the Bloom festival.
“I met a lot of amazing women during that campaign – and seeing my picture up there among them... It’s just made me look at everything differently.”