Tuesday 15 October 2019

'I decided I'd write cards for the boys for every birthday, until they were 21' - Mum's breast cancer journey

When Ger Collins was treated for breast cancer, she was shocked to see so many young women were affected. She tells Joy Orpen that it's vital we encourage women of all ages to check their breasts on a regular basis

Ger Collins. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Ger Collins. Photo: Steve Humphreys

If breast cancer is not diagnosed in the early stages, it could spread to the bones, lungs, brain or other parts of the body. Therefore, it makes absolute sense to be vigilant. If abnormalities are detected and treated as soon as possible, the chances are good that the patient will recover and be able to lead a fully productive life.

Someone who understands this only too well is former teacher Ger Collins (46) from Donabate, Co Dublin. She is so grateful for the help she received, following a diagnosis of breast cancer, she is now sharing her experiences with teachers and transition-year students.

Her ordeal began one summer's day in 2015. "During a routine check of my breasts, I found a lump that wasn't there before," she recounts. "We were heading for Italy the next day. So I consulted my GP, who said I should go on holiday anyway because I'd have to wait a week or so for a mammogram."

The following day, Ger, her husband Denis, and their boys, Sean, Darragh and Brian, who are now 15, 13 and 11 respectively, jetted off to Altomincio, near Lake Garda. "I decided to make the most of it, because this holiday was all about the kids' enjoyment," says Ger. "We didn't know what was around the corner. I thought, 'This could be our last family holiday'. I also knew when I got back, my life was going to change. Denis was understandably worried, but we had to put a brave face on it for the kids."

And despite her bravery, Ger did have moments when she feared for her life. "I decided that if this turned out to be a worst-case scenario, I would write cards for the boys for every one of their birthdays, until they were 21," she says. "One of the worst things about cancer is not knowing. Once I got the text message giving me a date for the mammogram, I felt relieved that the next step was about to happen."

Shortly after their return from Italy, Ger went to Beaumont Hospital for a triple assessment: a mammogram, an ultrasound and a biopsy. She soon knew from the expression on the doctor's face that things were serious; this was confirmed when she heard the words, "It's not a cyst".

"I was always grateful they were honest from day one," says Ger, "because that meant I was prepared when I went to get the results of the biopsy. That's when breast surgeon Professor Arnold Hill confirmed that the lump was indeed a tumour. I asked straight out if I was going to die. He said, 'No, it's treatable and fixable, but it does mean a year out of your life'. And I thought, 'OK, I can deal with that'."

The next stage was a CT scan to see if the cancer had spread to other parts of Ger's body. The test revealed suspicious 'dots' on Ger's liver, so she had to have an MRI scan. "That was the hardest part of this whole ordeal," she says. "Once you develop secondaries and it spreads, it's a much more serious diagnosis. You want them to do the full set of tests, but at the same time you're terrified."

A week later, Ger was told that the cancer hadn't spread. "That was the moment I thought, 'Thank god, I've only got breast cancer', whereas some weeks before, breast cancer was the biggest fear," she says.

The next step was to devise a treatment plan. Once that was in place, Ger could tell the boys about her diagnosis. "We were open and honest with them from the beginning," she says. "We were able to reassure them that this was treatable, and that I'd be having chemotherapy."

In September 2015, Ger had a mastectomy and lymph nodes removed at the Hermitage Clinic. "Following surgery, my chest was covered by a dressing and I had tubes for drainage. It was difficult dealing with restricted arm movement, but by exercising daily, my normal range of arm and shoulder movement was restored after a few weeks," she says. "I didn't mind losing my breast, as, in my eyes, it was hosting cancer; I just wanted to be cancer-free."

About two months later, Ger began having chemotherapy, because following her surgery, cancer had been found in lymph nodes near the site of the tumour.

Touchingly, Darragh decided to shave his head in solidarity with his mum, who was likely to lose her hair during treatment. Brian did the actual shaving with Denis's help, while Sean took photos. "When it was all over, we went downstairs and had dinner," Ger says. "That's the thing with cancer, life goes on regardless. I bought a wig, but never wore it; it saw more school plays than anything else. I wore hats instead.

"What I hated more than losing my hair was losing my eyebrows and eyelashes, because that just screams cancer."

Ger had 16 sessions of chemotherapy, followed by radiotherapy. She says she was shocked to discover that, at 43, she was one of the oldest patients having treatment for breast cancer at that particular centre. "The others were younger than me. So, we need to educate our young women to be self-checking," she says.

According to Aisling Hurley, CEO of Breast Cancer Ireland (BCI), of the almost 3,000 women in Ireland diagnosed with breast cancer annually, 30pc will be between the ages of 20 and 50 years. "There has been an increase in the survival rate from 75pc to 85pc," she says. "More importantly, mortality rates are decreasing, year on year, by 2pc. And thanks to new, sophisticated medical treatments, 50pc fewer patients require chemotherapy."

Ger believes that if there was more awareness among younger women, lives would be saved. That is why she has volunteered to talk to teachers and pupils about her own experience of having breast cancer. "I'm so grateful to be well, I want to give something back," she says.

Ger goes to schools with Adrienne McCleery, an outreach nurse with BCI, who explains about breast cancer and teaches the girls how to self-check.

"Then I tell them about my own experience when I had no obvious symptoms, apart from the lump," says Ger. "That illustrates the importance of self-checking. BCI has an app that will send you a reminder every month to check your breasts. I always say to any woman diagnosed with breast cancer: 'Look at me - this will be you, this time next year'."

Aisling adds, "Outreach programmes such as this are important in helping young woman identify abnormalities when they arise. Early detection and treatment are vital in ensuring outcomes will be more positive."

Ger Collins is an ambassador for Breast Cancer Ireland. She supports its Breast Health Education and Awareness Programme for teachers and transition-year students, which is sponsored by Cornmarket Group Financial Services. See breastcancerireland.com/education-awareness

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