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'At first, it's in the back of your mind: - will it come back? But that fades'

Breast cancer survivor Gillian Colleran from Glenageary, Co Wicklow now uses her experience to help others on the Irish Cancer Society's Survivor Support Programme.

Gillian was just 31 and on honeymoon in the Caribbean when she felt a lump in her breast while putting on sunscreen. "Cancer never came into my mind," she says. "I'd had cysts before and assumed it was another one of those, I never thought about it again the whole time we were away."

But she'd also been feeling tired, something she'd put down to working and organising the wedding and, on returning home, her GP referred her to James's Hospital Triple Assessment Clinic where she was diagnosed with breast cancer the same afternoon.

"I was flabbergasted," she recalls. "As a young woman, cancer had been the last thing on my mind. I'd no experience of it in my friends or family, suddenly I was plunged into an unknown world.

"How people react to you can be the hardest thing," she adds. "Most friends hadn't been through anything similar and they all wanted to know what happened. Others couldn't deal with it at all and didn't know what to say to me."

The Society's support groups provided vital help. "Suddenly you're in a group of people who know exactly what you're going through," explains Gillian.

She finds it cathartic now helping others, but it's also made her stronger.

"I don't sweat the small stuff now," she says. "When you've been through something as horrific as a cancer diagnosis it makes a big difference in how you deal with minor things."

And it strengthened her marriage, though she knows from experience that other women's relationships can be destroyed by the stresses and strains of the disease.

The first year was taken up with treatment - a lumpectomy, radiotherapy and chemotherapy. The second year prompted a lot of existential questions, but the third year marked a return to normality.

"At first it's always in the back of your mind: will it come back?" says Gillian, now 10 years clear of cancer. "But that fades over time. Now it feels like a lifetime ago."

Irish Independent