'Every woman needs to check: I was 26 and I got breast cancer'
Two women who were diagnosed early tell Emily Hourican what prompted them to get checked, how they handled the news and how they coped with the treatment
The latest figures from the National Cancer Registry (2019) estimate that on average 3,141 women are diagnosed with breast cancer annually.
Jill Murphy, 27, has just finished treatment for breast cancer. "I had my last dose of chemotherapy yesterday. I'm so happy - mixed with underlying nausea," she says.
Jill, from Killiney, Co Dublin, was diagnosed a year ago, following a visit to her doctor that nearly didn't happen.
"I went for something else," she says, "and while there I said 'would you mind just checking these lumps…' I felt almost embarrassed asking, because you never think, at the age of 26, that you're going to get cancer."
So what made her ask? "A nurse from Breast Cancer Ireland, Adrienne McCreery, had recently attended the place where I work, to give a talk about checking your breasts: what to look for, what to be suspicious of. I didn't attend, but a friend told me all about it, and I was interested. I began following Breast Cancer Ireland on Instagram and looked through the information and infographics they have.
"A friend had been diagnosed in the UK not long before, and that too made me more interested and more aware. "If it wasn't for that - Adrienne's visit and me following up on social media - I would never have got myself checked, and I could still be living with cancer now."
Even so, when Jill found the lumps, she wasn't worried at first.
"There's a history of cysts in my family so I assumed that's what it was," she says. "But, I noticed there was a different shape to the sides of my breasts where the lumps were. One of them, the part with the lump felt like muscle tissue. That turned out to be the more invasive tumour."
Friends and family told her not to worry but urged her to get a professional opinion.
"Thank God I did," she says. "I had been very tired . . . I knew something wasn't right."
Her GP referred her to St. Vincent's Hospital and initially she was told that it would be four months before she would get an appointment, but she had health insurance through work so went private.
She was due to be given a biopsy and an ultrasound but on the day of her appointment, she was told she would also be given a mammogram. Two weeks later, she got her diagnosis: bilateral breast cancer.
"It was such a shock," she says. "I felt like someone else was in that room, not me, being told that news. My mother was with me, and she was in floods of tears. 'I'd rather it was me than you,' she said, but I told her 'No, I'm young, and I'm going to bounce back from this'."
Her treatment was a bilateral mastectomy and reconstruction, followed by chemotherapy.
"The first thing was, I wanted to get my eggs frozen. I was told there was a high chance that my fertility would be okay, but I wanted to be safe, not sorry."
Jill got through the surgery, and then the first 12 weeks of chemotherapy "relatively okay. I still had energy, and only a few setbacks", but the final four weeks, on a different drug, Taxol was harder.
"Oh my God that was rough," she says, adding: "I have learned so much through this. It has given me a new perspective. A new lease of life, and a determination to spread awareness. I want to say to girls under 30: if you feel something, don't ignore it. It might be nothing - probably it will be nothing - but it's better to get yourself checked."
For 53-year-old Jenny Power, the catalyst for investigating the lump she found one night last April was a talk given by the same Breast Cancer Ireland nurse, Adrienne McCreery, at Clane Hospital where Jenny works in administration.
"I nearly didn't go," she says. "Ours is a busy office. In the end, I said I'd pop along."
A few weeks later, "I remembered Adrienne's advice about self-checking," Jenny says. "I found a very small lump, right behind my nipple. At that talk, Adrienne had shown us, on a simulated breast, exactly how to do a self-check, all the different lumps to watch for, and what to be concerned about, and it's very lucky she did. She mentioned 'not moving' and 'not round' as causes for concern, and that fitted with the lump I found.
"I'd say the last time I'd checked properly was around two years earlier, and I could easily have carried on, not checking, for a few more years, if not for Adrienne's talk. That could have meant the difference between stage 1/2 cancer, and stage 3/4, which is all the difference in the world. It is a real stroke of luck for me that I went to that talk."
She made an appointment with her GP and, at the same time, by coincidence, a letter arrived inviting her for a routine mammogram.
"Following that, I got a letter sending me to St. Vincent's for a second mammogram and a biopsy."
Because the lump was right behind the nipple, Jenny was told a mammogram alone might not have caught it; that her testimony of what she had found was vital.
Being told 'you have breast cancer,' was "like a slap in the face," Jenny says. "Your whole world stands still. You think 'why me?' The nurse was talking, telling me things, and I couldn't hear a word she said."
But, like Jill, she rallied swiftly. "My husband and I got into the car to drive home, and I remember saying 'it's not going to get me, I'm going to get it'," she says.
Jenny had a lumpectomy, followed by six sessions of chemotherapy - "that was the hardest. Every three weeks, for four or five days, my sitting room became my bedroom, until finally I decided I had to get up and get out of the house" - and then, in February, radiotherapy.
She is still being given herceptin but "other than that, I'm good. My consultant is very happy, and as far as I'm concerned, I won't let this beat me."
What is the Outreach Programme?
Breast Cancer Ireland's complimentary Outreach Programme was originally launched in 2015 aimed at informing and educating Transition Year students on the importance of good breast health. In 2017 the programme was extended, with Outreach coordinators expanding their reach into Leinster and Connacht and, this year into Munster (this was done largely as a result of support received from Cornmarket Group Financial Services). As a result of increased demand, the programme was further extended to include companies and women's groups across the community. The main aim is to encourage women of all ages to become more breast aware.
How does it work?
Through the use of a specially designed medical mannequin, Breast Cancer Ireland's Outreach nurses and coordinators educate women on how to perform a self-breast examination, highlighting the eight signs and symptoms to recognise so they'll know what is normal for them; and should an abnormality occur, it will be identified early and the treatment outcome is a lot more positive. The programme also encourages participants to download the free Breast Aware app. Breast Cancer Ireland believe women need to be more breast aware, and should aim to set patterns of behaviour that will safeguard them into the future. To book a presentation for your organisation, please go to the Education Awareness section on breastcancerireland.com