Life Health & Wellbeing

Wednesday 18 September 2019

'I changed my life when I got cancer - in a very simple way' - mother-of-one (32) found lump when feeding her baby

Holly Kennedy with her son Andrew and her husband Derek. Photo: Mary Coen Photography
Holly Kennedy with her son Andrew and her husband Derek. Photo: Mary Coen Photography
Holly Kennedy was diagnosed with cancer when she was 32 years old. Photo: Mary Coen Photography

Holly Kennedy

I used to think I was healthy.

I thought I ate a healthy diet and that I was better than a lot of people because I drank from a BPA-free water bottle, I didn’t drink coke and I bought organic where I could.

I used to think I got enough exercise. One weekly class in a gym and maybe a snatched lunchtime walk if I managed to escape from my desk. I used to think I wasn’t stressed out. That my well-paying, very stressful job was in fact what I really wanted. I used to think I didn’t drink too much. Only a half bottle of wine on a Friday, Saturday and Sunday night is ok, right?

This was all before I got cancer. At 32. I had just had my first baby with my wonderful husband.

We were loving every minute of the newborn madness and I was so proud to be breastfeeding my little boy.

When he was around six-months-old I noticed a lump in my right breast. I wasn’t ‘breast aware’ as such, but I had, for some reason, been checking my breasts for lumps that I thought would be associated with breastfeeding. I checked breastfeeding.ie and followed their advice (Give it two weeks, and if it hasn’t resolved, visit your GP).

A few weeks later I was telling my GP and she was assuring me that it wasn’t cancer. That she knew what she was looking for and this wasn’t it. I felt slightly relieved. I didn’t believe I could get cancer. Sure, I was breastfeeding and all and don’t they say that’s a great way to lower your risk?

As almost an afterthought, my GP referred me to St James’s Breast Care Unit because of my family history - my mom had breast cancer five years ago.

My husband was outside in the car with our baby boy. I was on standby, ready to feed our hungry little baby. I looked around the waiting room, at all the other women. I wondered who would be getting bad news that day and I felt worried for them. Not for me. Because I didn’t believe I could get cancer. Sure I was only 32. My lump was breastfeeding-related, I was sure of it. This appointment was just going to confirm that for me.

An hour later, two doctors had checked me over and both thought my lump was nothing suspicious. They sent me down to the ultrasound department to make sure. And that’s when things started to get really uncomfortable. The radiographer looked worried. I said to her, it’s just a blocked milk duct, right? Do you think they will drain it for me? She said, oh, I think they’ll want to do something with this. She left the room. A consultant came in. She started to look worried too. She asked me where my husband was and when she heard he was outside in the car, she asked me to call him in. She wanted to do a biopsy.

Biopsy done, and the consultant was still looking anxious. She said she was "a little bit concerned that it could be cancer". I started to get very scared.

My first true hiccup came after my surgery. I had a lumpectomy to remove what was left of the breast lump after chemo. A few days after my surgery I felt a little unwell and it was discovered I had an infection of some kind. Cue a dose of antibiotics and an anti-fungal treatment. Things improved and after a few more days I went home.

A few weeks later and my tummy was in a terrible state. I went to James’s A&E. I waited 14 hours in A&E until I eventually broke down and begged a triage nurse to do something for me. A few days later and they discovered I had C Difficile - a lovely little hospital bug. A few more days later and we were out of hospital and home with more antibiotics. But not before a very uncomfortable encounter with my oncologist. He told me that I have a 50/50 chance of a recurrence and that I really need to get through the next two years before things will really start to look better. That was a major shock.

It was the shock I needed to wake me up. To wake me up and realise that cancer is very serious. That I needed to not only do everything that my medical team told me to do, but more. That I needed to completely overhaul my life. After all, how had I ended up here? I had never spent a day in hospital up until I was having my baby boy. I had generally good health all my life. I was happy. I was healthy. Wasn’t I?

A few more months have gone by since then and I feel like a completely different person. I’ve re-evaluated what’s really important to me. And it’s simple.

My family are my life. I want to be here for my loving husband and my beautiful baby boy. I simply cannot afford to leave them.

My parents, my brother, my extended family, my friends - they need me, and I need to be here for them. Really, when all is said and done, that’s all that is important to me.

I’ve changed my mindset. I don’t sweat the small stuff anymore. No make-up on? Fine. That friend who hasn’t texted? Fine. House a mess? Fine.

Every single day is about making it the best possible day it can be. That might be a day at home cooking up a storm, cleaning the house or planning the grocery shopping. It’s about me and my family, making sure we are all happy and healthy.

I’m conscious, more than ever before, of every single piece of food that goes in my, or my family’s, mouths. Generally, no processed food is allowed through my front door - what we eat now is all cooked from scratch, with fresh, whole ingredients. None of those pre-cut, pre-washed, pre-packed vegetables either, mind. It’s organic where we can, more than ever before. It’s wholemeal or rye sourdough bread, soups or salads for lunch and a variety of fresh meat and fish for dinners.

It's a green smoothie every morning, plus a combination of vitamins, antioxidants and probiotics. It’s drinking two litres of filtered water every day. It’s a daily goal to get at least 30 minutes of exercise outdoors, rain, hail or shine.

It’s about listening to how my body feels, and reacting to it. Not ignoring it. No more not going to the toilet because I’m too busy. That was the old me.

I threw out all my make up and skincare and switched to 100pc natural alternatives. I cringe now when I see the seas of beauty and perfume packs on sale for Christmas. Those are just too many chemicals that are no good for us. Did you know your skin absorbs anything you put on it in under 20 seconds?

My body is truly a temple now. I am proud of it; I am protecting it; I am listening to it.

Before my diagnosis there was a day when I was out with my mother-in-law and my baby. I was telling her how happy I was with my life but that I had this terrible feeling something bad was going to happen.

I think our bodies know certain things, and if we listen, really carefully, we’ll hear them. Now I tell all my friends not to ignore the way they are feeling, to really listen to what they need and want out of their lives and to really consider if they’re getting what they want, for real.

In July this year I started a daily positivity website called Happy Magazine for people going through cancer in Ireland. It was the tool that I longed for at the start of my cancer journey - something to tell me HOW to be happy with cancer. Because it doesn’t come easily, once you’ve heard those words.”

“You think your life is over. Now I think in my case, it had only just begun. I’ve found my true purposes now and very little of the trappings of my old life remain.

Although there are lots of amazing support centres across the country doing excellent work, I wanted to start something that was there for someone on a cancer journey every single day. In their homes, in the chemo ward, in their hands - on their phone, tablet or computer.”

“Something to let them know they aren’t doing this alone, that there are others out there every day looking for that little lift to get them going. That is what Happy Magazine is all about.”

“I used to think I was healthy and happy. But now I know the true meaning of those words. It’s taken cancer for me. I don’t want this to be the reason for anyone else to wake up and really see how their lives are going. How their health is going.”

“I’m now that relative that tells all of my family to take care of themselves, take a probiotic, quit their job if it doesn’t make them happy. Life is too short and we’ve got to make things count. Today.”

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