'I'm 26 and I'm relieved I've had a double mastectomy'
Published 11/12/2012 | 06:00
Deirdre Carolan discovered she had a cancer-causing gene.
Celebrity appearances on The Late Late Show are usually happy, bubbly affairs, with stars taking the hotseat to chat contentedly about their latest film or book.
But when Liberty X singer Michelle Heaton appeared in October, it was a different story. The normally happy-go-lucky star was interviewed after she found out she had a gene mutation that gave her an up-to 85pc chance of developing breast cancer.
In the glare of the Donnybrook studio lights, Michelle cried as she told Ryan Tubridy about the trauma of finding out she had the BRCA 2 gene mutation and her decision to have both breasts removed at just 33.
Across the city, in a ward at the Mater Private Hospital, 26-year-old Deirdre Carolan was watching closely. Deirdre understood better than anyone what Michelle was going through: three days beforehand, the young speech therapist from Monasterboice, Co Louth, had had both her breasts removed after finding out that she too had a cancer-causing gene.
"Watching Michelle, I could see she was clearly devastated," says Deirdre. "But for me, I felt nothing but relief that the threat of cancer had lifted."
Deirdre's future is now bright. She has put cancer behind her and is looking forward to a 2013 filled with happy memories – notably, her wedding to fiancé Eoin Bradley next September.
But 2012 has been a gruelling year. Deirdre's ordeal started in March, when she found out she had the BRCA 1 gene mutation, giving her – like Michelle – an up-to 85pc lifetime risk of developing breast cancer, as well as an increased risk of ovarian cancer.
Deirdre already knew breast cancer ran in her mother's family, but it wasn't until she attended a talk at the local hospital that she found out she could take a simple blood test to find out if she had the gene.
Many women are hesitant to find out if they're at risk, but Deirdre felt that the more information she had about her health, the better.
"I wasn't that upset about taking the test. It's such a powerful thing to be able to do – think of all the other illnesses that you can't test for," she says.
Deirdre attended the Mater Private Hospital, where she was told she had the gene and placed on a screening programme, which meant mammograms and MRIs every six months.
But in August, when she was checking her own breasts at home, she found a lump. "That was stressful," she remembers. "You do your breast checks regularly, but you don't actually expect to find anything."
Because she was already in the system, things moved very quickly. The very next day, Deirdre met with an oncologist at the Mater.
"That decreased the stress hugely; I had already met these people and they all had already explained things to me," she says.
Deirdre had a mammogram, an MRI scan, a biopsy and a lumpectomy. But a week later, lab reports revealed evidence of Ductal Carcinoma in Situ (DCIS). DCIS is a non-invasive breast cancer, which isn't in itself life-threatening, but can increase the risk of invasive breast cancer later on.
At that point, the advice from her doctors, including breast surgeon Malcolm Kell, was that she should go ahead with a double mastectomy.
"That was the worst day," Deirdre recalls. "When Malcolm suggested a double mastectomy, it was just shocking. Immediately I rang my mam and I rang Eoin to talk it through. But by the next day we all decided that it was for the best.
"So we kicked into action mode. My friends were great – we had loads of dinners and coffees and one of the nurses suggested that Eoin and I went away for the weekend, which we did.
"I got ready for hospital, buying myself new pyjamas and reading up on the operation."
In October, Deirdre underwent a six-hour surgery during which both breasts were removed and the reconstruction process begun.
When she woke up, she was "over the moon". "I was tired and groggy, but just so relieved to have it over."
Within a couple of days, Deirdre was up and about and four days after the operation, she was back home with Eoin. This week she's back at work. And while she may need to have her ovaries removed in the future, for now, Deirdre's life is getting back to normal.
So is her body. Deirdre has tissue expanders in her chest, which help create a soft pocket to contain the implant. In the new year, she'll have reconstructive surgery using silicon implants.
She'll even be able to wear the wedding dress she picked out before the operation.
"In a bra my shape looks totally normal and no one would know the difference," she says. "I had my work Christmas party last week and I was able to wear a normal outfit, albeit a round neck top rather than a v neck. It's only when you take off the bra and see the scars that you'd know. But a scar is just a scar; it's like a reminder that you have had a great outcome."
For some young women, losing their breasts can be traumatic. Michelle Heaton told readers of her magazine column she was afraid to look under her nightie after surgery.
'Your breasts are a symbol of your femininity, your sexuality, of motherhood, so it can be very difficult for young women, particularly for a single women who may worry about future sexual relationships," says Sinead Murtagh, the breast care clinical nurse specialist at the Mater Private Hospital. "After surgery women can feel less desirable and there can be feelings of loss and grief."
But Deirdre felt differently. "You don't want to sit round and grieve for your breasts. Maybe it's just me, but when you have to go for regular mammograms or MRIs, you begin to see the breast as causing a lot of trouble. The operation meant the end of all that."
"I've been upfront with my colleagues and my family and my friends about the operation; I don't think I should be ashamed or embarrassed about it. I've come out the other side and I've had a great recovery. If I hadn't had the test, I wouldn't have been treated so quickly. I just feel lucky."