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'I was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 27'


Gillian Johnson now works as a fundraiser with the Irish Cancer Society. Photo: Dave Meehan

Gillian Johnson now works as a fundraiser with the Irish Cancer Society. Photo: Dave Meehan

Gillian Johnson now works as a fundraiser with the Irish Cancer Society. Photo: Dave Meehan

HOWEVER common breast cancer may be for women (it's now the second most common cancer in Ireland), the incidence of breast cancer among women in their 20s is still extremely uncommon. Gillian Johnson, from Leixlip, Co Kildare, was just 27 when she was diagnosed.

She had no family history of breast cancer but when she found a lump on her breast while she was in the shower, she knew immediately it was not benign. "It was a really big lump. I knew straight off that it was bad. I went to my GP the next day and they told me I had two tumours covering 8cm that had come together."

The lump was unusual in that it was just above her breast and, frighteningly, she could feel that the lump was growing at a rapid pace, getting bigger by the day. "Because I was under 34, I was told that I wouldn't be seen for six to 12 weeks.

"I had no medical insurance but I got a private appointment for two days later, and they gave me a triple assessment in one day. That day, they transferred me to the public list to do my biopsy and I was diagnosed a week later. I'd still have been waiting for an appointment."

Gillian was told the cancer was aggressive and was given "the whole kitchen sink of chemo". After the tumour had shrunk a little, they operated.

At the time Gillian was studying for a degree in NUI Maynooth as well as raising her three children. "For somebody of my age it's rare to get cancer." And with three young children it was difficult to face the news, even though her prognosis was good and her doctors were positive.

"I remember the day I was diagnosed, all they could tell me was that I had cancer and until they did all the tests, they didn't know exactly where it was or where it might have spread to. That night, I was in shock. I went to bed and had a panic attack. I was thinking I don't know whether this cancer has spread and I remember thinking my whole world is coming down on top of me.

"But the next morning the kids snuck in and wanted to be around me. You have to look at the positives. Women who are 30 years older than me were back in for treatment for their second or third times. It's easy to say keep positive but you have to have times when you get scared and you realise you've no control and that you don't want to die. That was horrible."

It's at times like these that Gillian found the leaflets she had got from the Irish Cancer Society helpful. "At 2 or 3am when I couldn't sleep and the fear would come over you you'd just read positive stories and professional descriptions. I found the booklets a saving grace because they have ones for the kids as well. Any time I was looking at them on my own, it was great to read other people's positive stories.

"I found those amazing, it's like anything positive or negative that happens in your life. You can become obsessed with it. I was initially obsessed with the internet but the leaflets just gave me facts and there was nothing about death, just facts about how cancer grows and some advice."

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At the ages of nine, seven and five her children were old enough to understand something was wrong. "I had to stay strong and positive. They could see that mammy was losing her hair, and a friend of mine was going through cancer at the same time as me and she lost her battle and the kids were aware of it."

She made the decision to tell her children what was happening to her. "I told my eldest on her own because she knew something was going on. My youngest just told me I looked like a man and hid behind the curtains," she laughs.

Gillian is aware that she is one of the lucky ones. "I was never told I was terminal and breast cancer is the most curable cancer, so the literature was very comforting. It was the right thing for me to be reading." She also feels lucky that she had had children young.

The drug she is on now can interfere with fertility "I definitely feel blessed that I have them. Another young girl who was getting treatment at the same as me was just 25 and she had no children. She was told that the damage meant she wouldn't be able to have children."

Now 30, Gillian says it's the hardest thing she has gone through but it has changed her outlook for the better. "You really start to think that life is not about getting that promotion but it's about enjoying every second.

"Don't get me wrong, your mind can forget that very easily too and you fall back into your own little routine, but the things I used to be scared of or freak out about seem non-existent compared to the fear of dying.

"I didn't want to die, you look at your life it's cliché but you have this inner beauty and view things a lot differently and it's just the little things, not the car or the money but the people you love and enjoy in life, it can be taken from you.

"I had to fight through all that to be here, had to be sick and lose my hair and look like crap, had to fight to live. It takes a lot out of you physically and mentally ... thank God though because that's what kept you here and alive. Sometimes you think if this was 20 years ago I mightn't still be here. It can blow your mind but you definitely have this feeling... it changes your outlook. Most people who go through an experience like this will have a different outlook that you can't buy."

Not only has her experience changed her outlook but it has also changed the course of her career. At the time, she was working in the national museum and taking a history degree. Now, she is working in fundraising for the Irish Cancer Society. "It's great to give something back."

The Irish Cancer Society and Ballygowan Gold labels campaign runs until September. For every bottle sold, a donation will be made Irish Cancer Society. The Irish Cancer Society's National Cancer Helpline is 1800 200 700.

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