Wednesday 25 April 2018

'Once you know you have cancer, you want it gone' - Mother on the impact breast cancer and mastectomy has had on her life

Getting a diagnosis of cancer is always traumatic. And that was certainly the case for Martha Tiernan, who tells our reporter that resuming an active lifestyle fairly soon following her treatment really helped her recovery

Martha Tiernan from Kilkenny. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Martha Tiernan from Kilkenny. Photo: Steve Humphreys

Joy Orpen

When Martha Tiernan went to her doctor about a fairly minor ailment, she never for a second imagined a much more serious condition would be diagnosed as a consequence of this seemingly routine visit.

Martha was born in Birmingham 46 years ago. When she was still a little girl, the family moved back to Ireland and settled in Kilkenny. After school, she trained as a chef, and in 1999, she married Larry Tiernan, a painter and decorator.

They have three daughters and one son. As a family, they've experienced the usual ups and downs that most families encounter. Not surprisingly, Larry's decorating business was badly hit by the recession, but somehow they muddled through.

So all was well until Christmas 2012, when Martha began to feel a burning sensation in her right breast. "I could feel a lump and suspected it was an abscess," she explains. And while she tends to put her personal needs on the long finger, she knew in this case that wouldn't be appropriate. So, she went to the doctor who confirmed the lump was, indeed, an abscess. She was prescribed an antibiotic, and was recommended to have her breasts comprehensively examined.

Martha was seen at the BreastCheck clinic in Waterford, in March 2013. By then, her abscess was already long gone. Even so, the consultant recommended she have a mammogram. "I'm the kind of person who doesn't like to cause a fuss," says Martha. "So, it would have been more in character for me to say, 'I won't put you to all the bother'. But in this case, I didn't, and to this day I still don't know why."

Two weeks later, Martha was called for the mammogram. She says she was apprehensive about the physical process, as she'd been told by other women that the mammogram involved squeezing and pressing on the breasts, which could be painful. "In truth, the thought was much worse that the doing of it," she says. The radiologist then told her that she needed an ultrasound scan as well. But it could only be done the following Friday.

Martha, caught off-guard, blurted out that she had to work on that day. She'd need to give her employers, at the private hospital where she had cheffed for the previous 20 years, more notice of an intended absence. Fortunately, BreastCheck was able to accommodate her, and within the hour, she was having the ultrasound. The radiologist asked her where the abscess had been, and when she pointed to her right breast, he said they'd seen something suspicious in the left breast. They would like her consent to do a biopsy, under local anaesthetic, as well.

Naturally, Martha agreed. Later, the consultant radiologist showed her the images from the mammogram on a computer screen. "What I saw was a dense, dark area on an otherwise white space," she recalls. When she asked him to put a figure on the likelihood of her having cancer, he said it was around the 95pc mark. "Reality hits you in a big way," she says.

Martha is a pragmatic, down-to-earth person, and those qualities soon kicked in when she asked the consultant about what came next. It was, in fact, the wait for the results of the biopsy. "I remember wondering if this was really happening to me," says Martha. "Could I be dreaming?"

She was so stunned, she didn't tell Larry for two days. "I like to get things straight in my head first," she explains. "When I did tell him, he got an awful fright. He kept saying, 'Look, it's not all lost. There's still a chance it's not cancer'."

A week later, Martha got a letter asking her to come to the hospital to see the breast consultant. She was left in no doubt about what was in store for her. The specialist immediately confirmed that Martha did have cancer, and informed her that a multi-disciplinary team had decided that the best option for her was a mastectomy [removal] of the left breast. "I wasn't offered a lumpectomy [removal of the growth only] because of calcification. That breast was always lumpy," explains Martha.

She says she was happy with that decision, and feels that women who would prefer to have a full mastectomy, rather than a lumpectomy, should have that option.

"It's their body, so it should be their choice," she says. "Otherwise they are left wondering and constantly checking."

Martha's surgery was scheduled for the following week at University Hospital Waterford. "Once you know you have cancer, you want it gone," she says. Her left breast was removed the following Thursday, and by the Monday, she was home.

She believes her swift recovery was due in part to the excellent surgical and nursing care she received, and to the fact that she has been practising Kempo, a martial art, since 2009. Martha was also given the choice whether or not to have chemotherapy. She chose to have four cycles at St Luke's Hospital in Kilkenny.

Later on, following consultations with doctors in Dublin, Martha decided not to have breast reconstruction. "They would have had to take tissue from my stomach to reconstruct my breast. I didn't want to take extra leave from work, as I couldn't really afford it," she says with honesty.

"My husband's business had been badly affected by the recession. People don't seem to realise there are huge financial implications for people with long-term illnesses. And anyway, it would have temporarily affected my ability to do martial arts."

Being active is important to Martha. "A healthy lifestyle can lower the risk of getting cancer and help prevent its return," she says. She plans to take part in Breast Cancer Ireland's upcoming Great Pink Run in conjunction with Avonmore Slimline Milk. For the first time, it will also take place at Kilkenny's Castle Park, on Sunday, September 10, the day after the annual run in the Phoenix Park.

She is calling on people living in the local area to join her for the event. "Apart from getting fit, you will meet people from all walks of life," she says. "Each one has a different story to tell, but they all share one wish - a cure for cancer."

Martha is already training hard. "Aut Even Hospital, where I work, is sponsoring the Kilkenny event, so I'd better put in a good performance," she says with a giggle. Given her great attitude to life, she should do very, very well.


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