A narrow escape - How my breast cancer was nearly mistaken for a sports injury
Olivia Carpenter thought the lump in her breast was caused by a sports injury. She tells our reporter that following an incorrect diagnosis, she did agree to further investigations, and that may have saved her life
Soon after she completed a 10km charity run, Olivia Carpenter's husband, Gavin, gave her a great big hug. As he held her close, he felt a lump in her right breast. He became alarmed and suggested that she get it medically checked.
"It felt like a stone to me," says Olivia. "There was no soft tissue. To be honest, I thought I had pulled something while running." Later, she went to see her mother in Dunshaughlin, Co Meath, who, having felt the lump, was also disturbed by what she found. She agreed it needed to be investigated. "I still thought I had pulled something during the run and that they were being dramatic," Olivia says. But fortunately, softly spoken Olivia was prepared to listen to what her family had to say and made an appointment to see her GP, who referred her to the local hospital for further investigations.
The timing of all this couldn't have been worse. Olivia was already very stressed from constant trips from her home in Killiney to support her father, who had been diagnosed with cancer two months previously. She would travel up and down to Dunshaughlin, or to one of several hospitals where he was being treated, while also caring for her three children. And complicating matters even further was the fact she and Gavin were planning to spend the coming weekend in New York, a prize they had won at a charity auction to raise funds for Haiti. Olivia had never been to the Big Apple, so she was really looking forward to the experience.
Nonetheless, she presented herself at the hospital, where she was examined by two doctors who both diagnosed fibroadenomas, (benign or non-cancerous lumps). She says she was also informed that, as a 34-year-old, she was considered too young for screening. She was convinced she was in the clear. But Olivia's sister had asked a friend of hers, who was a surgeon at the same hospital, to check on Olivia if he happened to be in the vicinity at the time of her visit. And this he did. Having examined her, he felt further investigations were in order. "Once he asked for a biopsy, I knew I was in trouble," says Olivia. "Another doctor took a sample by injection." She was told to expect the results the following Friday.
In the meantime, Olivia and Gavin jetted off to America, but the trip was a dismal failure. Olivia had completely lost her appetite, so the couple ate out only once. And when she wasn't worrying about her dad, she was panicking about herself. She even tried calling the hospital from the US to get the results, but they wouldn't give them to her over the phone. The following Tuesday, Olivia and Gavin, who has a telecommunications company, went, full of trepidation, to the hospital to get her results.
With a sinking heart, Olivia watched as the surgeon, who had ordered the biopsy, walked towards them. He had a nurse by his side, a file in his hands and a very serious expression on his face. "He put the file on the table and said, 'It is breast cancer'," Olivia recalls. "I was speechless, but Gavin, who is a very practical man, asked for a pen and paper and said, 'OK, what's the plan for her?'"
Olivia learned her breast cancer had tested positive for the HER2 (human epidermal growth factor receptor 2) gene, which promotes the growth of cancer cells. According to Breast Cancer Ireland, in one of about five cases of breast cancer, the cancer cells have a gene mutation that makes an excess of the HER2 protein. "HER2-positive breast cancers tend to be more aggressive," they say. "However, treatments specifically targeted at HER2 are very effective. These treatments are so effective, the prognosis is actually quite good." Olivia was told what tests she needed and what her options were. She learned that a relatively new drug was being used successfully for her particular form of cancer and that she was a good candidate for it. She opted to have chemotherapy as well. Fortunately, further tests showed the cancer hadn't spread to her lymph nodes.
Shortly after that, Olivia began treatment. Every three weeks, she would spend a whole week having chemotherapy. The treatment made her feel very sick for the following seven days. In addition, a nurse would come to her home to give her injections to boost her bone-marrow production.
When Olivia was first diagnosed, she had waist-length blonde hair. So when clumps started coming away in her hands, Gavin, proactive as ever, went out and bought an electric hair razor and completed the process. "Losing my hair was an absolute killer," she says. "I also lost my eyebrows, and my nails became brittle and would break easily." Six months into the treatment, Olivia had a lumpectomy - effectively, she lost half a breast. But she has since had reconstruction surgery and she is delighted with the results.
In the course of the first year, she also had seven weeks of radiation therapy. However, the most painful aspect of all this was the realisation that her children were deeply affected by the situation. "It was very hard on them," says Olivia. "They were only seven, nine and 11 years old at the time. They were asking me questions - for example, if I was going to be alright. But I certainly didn't know the answer to that. That was much, much harder than losing my hair."
So 2011 was the year from hell for Olivia and her family. But four years later, she is still fully in remission and, hopefully, in a year's time, she will get the all-clear. Thankfully, her father is also well and thriving. Olivia is immensely grateful for the help she received from the medical fraternity and from family and friends. But it's her sister she hails as the real hero of the piece. "I believe I owe my life primarily to my wonderful sister who cared enough to speak up for me," she says. "If the surgeon had not intervened that day, the outcome for me could have been deadly. I would have gone home relieved that I had nothing but a benign lump."
She says the most important message to emerge from her story is that women should not hesitate to speak up if they are in any doubt at all about their health, or a particular diagnosis. "Do not be afraid to ask for a second opinion and keep on asking until you are satisfied with the outcome," she counsels.
Olivia will be taking part in the Great Pink Run with Avonmore Slimline Milk in the Phoenix Park on Saturday, August 27, to raise funds for Breast Cancer Ireland, an organisation that does much good work in researching this most serious and all-too-common health problem.
For more information, see breastcancerireland.com
Sunday Indo Life Magazine