Wednesday 24 April 2019

'I was pregnant when I found out I had cancer' - Mother-of-two discovered lump when she was 19 weeks pregnant

Dianne Fitzharris Doyle was expecting her second child when she found a lump in her breast. She tells our reporter her story of treatment pre and post childbirth and how she is now looking to the future

Dianne Fitzharris Doyle from Wexford found a lump in her breast when she was pregnant with her second child. Photo: Patrick Browne
Dianne Fitzharris Doyle from Wexford found a lump in her breast when she was pregnant with her second child. Photo: Patrick Browne

Arlene Harris

Pregnancy can be hard work, particularly when you have another child to look after - but imagine being 19 weeks pregnant and discovering that the tenderness in your breasts was not down to hormones, but was actually heralding the presence of a malignant tumour?

This is exactly what happened to Dianne Fitzharris Doyle when she was expecting her second child in 2016 - and on top of the usual physical and emotional exhaustion associated with pregnancy she had to undergo surgery to remove the tumour.

"When I was pregnant with Harrison (18 months), I was thinking of getting rid of my underwire bra until he was born as it was beginning to hurt," says Dianne, who is married to Paddy. "I remember taking it off and still feeling sore so I put my finger where the pain was and discovered a lump.

"I wasn't too worried about it as I thought it was just something hormonal, but when it didn't go away after a week, I decided to make an appointment with my GP."

The Wexford woman was totally unconcerned by the lump and her doctor also thought it was pregnancy related, but referred her to the local breast clinic as a precaution.

"My doctor said it would be about six weeks before I got an appointment with the breast clinic but I got one three weeks later and this started to ring alarm bells," says the 39-year- old. "The GP told me not to worry and that it was probably just down to a backlog clearing so I went for the ultrasound by myself and expected to be out in no time - however, I was told that I needed a mammogram and a biopsy, which worried me, mainly because of the pregnancy as I didn't want to take any risk with the baby, but they assured me it was safe, so it all went ahead and I was told that someone would be in touch with me soon.

"A few days later I got a letter asking me to come back for an appointment and this time I asked Paddy to come with me because even though neither of us was overly concerned, I thought it would be good to have him there. And I'm so glad he was as I was utterly shocked to be told that I had cancer. I went completely numb - it was if the sound had been turned off and I could just see mouths moving but couldn't hear anything - then when I saw the colour drain from Paddy's face, I knew it was real."

Dianne, who also has a daughter, Ellen (6), was devastated with the turn of events and was told that once the baby reached the stage where it had a 'chance of life if an emergency section was necessary', she would need to undergo surgery to remove the tumour from her right breast.

"I underwent a lumpectomy at 24 weeks to remove the tumour and was kept in for a bit to make sure the baby was OK," she recalls. "It was a very stressful time as I was so worried that something would happen to my unborn child - but it all went OK. However, two weeks later, I had a follow-up which revealed that the surgeon didn't manage to get clear margins and I could either wait until after I had given birth, or he could go again to ensure all the cancer was removed - he recommended this course of action, so it went ahead and this time, everything was eradicated.

"I was so caught up in the stress of surgery and worrying about the baby so it never occurred to me that I would need further treatment. But a few weeks later, I had a morning appointment with an oncologist in Waterford and was booked for a Caesarean Section in Wexford that same afternoon. I went through such a roller coaster of emotions just thinking about the logistics, but presumed the oncologist would just tell me how I was doing. So when she told me that I would have to have chemotherapy and radiotherapy after my baby was born, I was devastated - it was like I had been diagnosed all over again.

"However, I had no choice but to park my distress as I had to go to on to the other hospital to meet my baby."

As any new mother knows, the days and weeks after giving birth can be utterly exhausting and achieving anything other than making sure your baby is fed and changed can seem like a mammoth task.

But six weeks after her son was born, Dianne, who works as an insurance broker, had to undergo a gruelling programme of chemotherapy, followed by radiotherapy before she could give herself over to her new child.

"The chemo was very hard as I was exhausted enough anyway," she says. "I was very lucky that I wasn't physically sick but it felt like I had really bad flu, I also lost my appetite and had zero energy. Thankfully I have a big family so my sisters and brother, my parents and Paddy's family all rallied around to help us - some even coming over to help with the night feeds as Paddy is self-employed so couldn't take much time off.

"Losing my hair was tough and it was hard to explain to Ellen what was happening as I didn't want to worry her - so after I bought the wig, I left it lying around so she would casually come across it and then when she asked about it, I told her what it was for and that I was going to be getting medicine which would make my hair fall out so would be using it then. She took it in her stride and even told friends about it at school as one child came up to me at the school gate and asked if I had a wig as they didn't believe Ellen. So being honest with her was a very good plan and she was amazing throughout."

October is Breast Cancer Awareness month and the Irish Cancer Society want us all to be aware of what women like Dianne go through and how important it is for everyone to be breast aware and seek medical advice if at all concerned.

Early intervention is vital and Dianne says today she has a new lease of life and an appreciation that wasn't there before she had cancer. "I am feeling really great these days," she says. "I have finished all my treatment and at my last appointment when the doctor said they wouldn't need to see me for six months, I said a silent Hallelujah. I am building myself up slowly but surely and have started training from a rehabilitation perspective rather than trying to get in shape - but it is simply amazing to just feel well and know that I have come out the other side of a very difficult situation.

"I would advise other women to go to their doctor if they are at all worried and if they have been diagnosed with cancer, not to despair, take each day as it comes because every one brings a new challenge and it is easier to deal with them day by day rather than looking at the big picture.

"So take the good with the bad - some days you will be very low, but that's okay. I had a new baby but I managed it by not looking too far into the future and patting myself on the back for each little hurdle I overcame. Having cancer has really opened my eyes to what other people go through, what marvellous work the Irish Cancer Society does and how truly blessed I am.

"It was a tough time, but thanks to medicine, treatment, the wonderful doctors and nurses and the support of my family and friends, I am doing great and am now looking forward to the future."

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