Saturday 22 September 2018

Breast cancer survivor on her pregnancy: 'It's like we've been given a chance to live a second life'

By the time Stephanie Geoghegan decided she wanted more children, she had serious health problems. But she tells our reporter, having followed the advice of doctors, she is now expecting her second child

Go-getter: Stephanie Geoghegan. Photo: Steve Humphries
Go-getter: Stephanie Geoghegan. Photo: Steve Humphries

Joy Orpen

Stephanie Geoghegan (42) is one of life's serious go-getters. So, if she sets her mind to something, she will achieve her goal - no matter what the obstacles may be. And having a second child was no exception to that rule.

Stephanie grew up in a family of nine in Cabra on Dublin's northside. When she was just 15, she met Karl McDermott, and having fallen in love, they were delighted when, in 1993, their son, who is also called Karl, was born. A few years later, the family moved to Kildare so they could get a foot on the property ladder, and they have lived there ever since.

Over the years, Stephanie has worked in the jewellery business, and can definitely tell a genuine diamond from a fake. But she has also been a manager in an upmarket international chain store. She stayed with the company until 2014, when ill health forced her to rethink her options.

"I started getting cysts in 2008," she explains. "Whenever I noticed an abnormality, I'd go to the breast clinic at St Vincent's [University Hospital], where they would give me a triple assessment [examination, imaging and biopsy]. Once they'd ascertained that it was a harmless cyst, they'd aspirate it with a syringe. Cysts are really just like pockets of water, but they do need to be checked."

"The more informed I am, the better it is for me," says Stephanie. This responsible attitude paid off in 2013 when she noticed a small lump in the vicinity of yet another cyst. As always, she made sure to have it investigated.

Following a core biopsy, she was told to return in five days to get the results. Naturally, she was apprehensive, but she tried to remain positive. "Karl and I went in with our coffees," she remembers. "We asked the doctor if he'd like one too, but he didn't seem interested." They found out why when he told them the lump had been identified as an invasive ductal carcinoma. In other words: ducts in Stefanie's breast had developed cancerous cells.

"When you hear the word 'cancer', it's a shock; it just hits you," says Stephanie. "I remember bawling crying, with Karl beside me."

Less than three weeks later, surgery was performed to remove the lump and some surrounding tissue. "I have a phobia about needles and blood, so I was dealing with a lot of fears," Stephanie volunteers. At their follow-up appointment, she and Karl learned that the tumour - which was classified as oestrogen receptor positive; the most common kind of breast cancer in women in Ireland - had been successfully removed, and that the surrounding margins were clear.

Their fears that the cancer might already have entered Stefanie's lymphatic system were fortunately put to rest as the lymph nodes were also found to be free of cancer cells. Early detection had paid off. That seemed like a good moment for them to discuss with the specialist their hopes of having another child.

"He said, 'This is not a matter for discussion today; this is a day for celebration'," Stephanie recounts. So, she and the two Karls obeyed doctor's orders, and went out for a family dinner.

The next stage was an intensive six-week course of radiotherapy, which was to be followed by a programme of hormone treatment that could last from five to 10 years. Stephanie explains that her particular kind of tumour feeds off oestrogen, a hormone that defines women and allows them to procreate.

"This disease was a huge barrier to me having a child," she explains. "Having consulted with my doctor, we decided I would have the hormone treatment for two years. The chances of me surviving with the full treatment was 92pc; and with me only taking it for two years, it's 89pc."

When she eventually stopped the treatment, Stephanie then allowed a period of time to pass to allow her body to return to normal. St Vincent's then referred her to the Rotunda Hospital.

Since the Rotunda is apparently the "oldest continuously operating" maternity hospital in the world, she was in excellent hands. "We wanted to be sure that everything was in order after the cancer," explains Stephanie. Tests revealed that in spite of her illness, the ensuing surgery and hormonal treatment, her level of fertility had only dropped from 13pc to 12.8pc. It seemed too good to be true.

"Within a year, I got pregnant," says a delighted Stephanie, who is still trying to take in this seeming impossibility.

The baby is due on February 12. "When I had the first scan very early on, there was even a tiny flicker, and that was the heart beating," she says. "They are keeping a close eye on me at the Rotunda, and they're very happy with the way things are going. The nurses are hoping it will be a Valentine's baby."

Following the infant's birth, it's possible Stephanie will resume having the hormone treatment, as there's the potential that if her particular form of cancer returns, it could metastasise in other parts of her body.

In the meantime, she and Karl are over the moon about her recovery, and about the baby, of course. "It's like we've been given a chance to live a second life," she explains. "We used to think work was all that mattered. However, this has taught me to live life in a very different way."

In the old days, Stephanie was full of fear. She was afraid of heights; she suffered from claustrophobia; she didn't like flying; she was reluctant to try new things. Now she's up for everything and anything. She's climbed high at Awesome Walls, a facility near the Red Cow; she's taken over the controls of a Cessna plane in mid-flight, and she's trekked up Machu Picchu in Peru, all to raise funds for breast cancer.

She's supervising and managing the building of a 100-square-metre extension at their home. She's learning about running a charity, so she can set up her own, which will be called Steph's Ark, to benefit adults with cancer.

And she is certainly supporting this October's Cups Against Cancer campaign, which is hoping to raise funds for research into breast cancer.

"Some 2,900 women in Ireland are diagnosed with breast cancer every year," says Mark Mellett of the Irish Cancer Society. "Your cup of coffee can help our researchers find better ways to diagnose and treat this disease. We need to ensure that a woman who has just been diagnosed with breast cancer has the correct information and support to help her through this frightening and worrying time."

See cancer.ie/cupsagainstcancer

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