When Teresa Costello was at the very peak of her fitness, she got cancer. Even more shocking, she was only 35 years of age. But this gorgeous, bubbly mother of one has bounced back and she's now determined to spread the word that all young women need to be vigilant about their health, and from an early age.
eresa, who grew up in Tallaght, has spent the past 14 years working in the procurement department of UDG Healthcare. "I love the company and I love the job," she says enthusiastically. She lives in Blessington in Co Wicklow, because it's accessible to her work in Citywest and to her familial stomping ground in Tallaght.
Seven years ago, her son Rhys was born. A couple of years later, Teresa and his father separated; however, they remain good friends. So all was well at work and on the home front when, two years ago, Teresa, while showering, felt a lump. "I wasn't breast aware," she says with total honesty. "But I did know enough to go to the doctor."
Teresa didn't think there could be anything seriously wrong with her. After all, she was only 35. She was really healthy, thanks to her desire to look good, her love of exercise, and the input of her personal trainer. She also watched her diet and didn't smoke. "I was probably the fittest I have ever been," she says.
Her GP also thought it was unlikely anything serious could be brewing, but nonetheless he decided to err on the side of caution and referred her to St James's Hospital in Dublin. "I put it to the back of my mind," Teresa says. "But I had a bad vibe too." The following week she went to Dublin for a triple assessment, involving a mammogram, and if needed, a biopsy and an ultrasound.
During the initial examination, the consultant asked Teresa to raise her arms above her head. This was a truly defining moment. "That's when we saw the extent of the problem," says Teresa. "There were definite indents; it looked like dimpling, or the cellulite you see on your legs. He found not just one, but several tumours."
Teresa says the whole process was very unsettling and "surreal". She found the biopsy somewhat painful, the mammogram uncomfortable and the revelations totally shocking.
"I wasn't breast aware. I was young, I was small-chested and I thought I was invincible," Teresa says. But she was soon persuaded otherwise. "Every face I looked at told me I had cancer," she recalls. And while the consultant wouldn't have the final, official results for a few days, he didn't offer Teresa any false hope. "He said he'd love to be wrong, but I should prepare myself for the worst," she says.
A week later, Teresa, accompanied by her supportive cousin Stephen, returned to St James's Hospital, where cancer was confirmed. She learned that her treatment would take at least nine months and would involve chemotherapy to shrink the three tumours, removal of her right breast, and radiation therapy as a preventative measure.
Teresa then made the decision to take a year off work, so she could prioritise her very serious health problems. She also began researching the various issues around cancer. By then she had got the whole situation into perspective.
"I thought it could be worse; that it could be my child who was sick," she recalls. She also began to realise that breast cancer can usually be beaten if it is diagnosed early enough. She was also greatly helped when one of Stephen's friends, who had survived cancer and chemotherapy, came to talk to her about the process. "The fear of the unknown is what wrecks people," she says.
"I thought when I walked through the door for treatment, I'd shrivel up; that I wouldn't be myself anymore. But when I left after my first chemo session, I was exactly the same," she says. Teresa then had her head shaved. "I was advised that it can be terribly traumatic to wake up and find clumps of your hair on the pillow. So I went to Jim Hatton, a hairdresser in Rathmines. He has a special room, separate from his salon, where he can shave your head in private," she says. "I chose a wig from him straight away."
By now Teresa was in fight mode. "I'd resigned myself to the fact that this wasn't going to be an easy ride," she explains. "I just had to get on with it.
"I learned from my research that sugar wasn't good for people with cancer, so I gave up sugar and alcohol and ate lots of garlic." Teresa had chemotherapy once every two weeks, for four months. A few days after the treatment, she would hit a slump for a day or two, then start to feel reasonably well again. "I called those my 'dippy days'," she says, laughing. She dealt with them by taking to her bed and turning off the phone.
Teresa says the treatments stripped her back to her core. "You lose your eyebrows, your eyelashes, your hair and your health. You go from feeling strong to feeling vulnerable. Even though the cure rates are high, you get a sense of your own mortality."
The next stage was to remove her right breast and to begin reconstruction. About eight weeks later, she had additional surgery to finish off the new breast properly. Teresa says the consultant who did her surgery was completely understanding of her need to continue looking good and made every effort to ensure that was the case. The final stage was radiation therapy over a six-week period as a preventative measure. The treatment was so non-invasive, Teresa used to go on to the gym for a workout after the sessions.
Given that she has had a narrow escape, Teresa urges all young women to examine themselves on a regular basis, to have medical check-ups and to get help immediately if they have any concerns at all.
She has also started her own Facebook page called Breast Friends, to support women and their families who are dealing with breast cancer. It's all part of her campaign to keep young women safe from the ravages of breast cancer.
"When I was first diagnosed I was terrified I wouldn't be around for Rhys's First Holy Communion next year. But now I know I will be there for him," she says. "I cannot tell you how grateful I am to my family and friends, and to the doctors and nurses involved in my recovery."
And as this gorgeous, now healthy, Dublin woman gets up to leave, heads turn admiringly.
Teresa (and Olympian Sonia O'Sullivan) will be taking part in Breast Cancer Ireland's Great Pink Run, and Family Fun Day, sponsored by Avonmore Slimline Milk, on Saturday, August 29, in the Phoenix Park. Registrations for the 10k Challenge and 5k Family Fun Run have been extended until tomorrow, Monday. For more information, see greatpinkrun.ie