'I was so determined to breastfeed my new baby after mastectomy'
Orla McGregor had just finished nursing her third child when she was scheduled for breast removal after biopsy results confirmed cancer, writes Chrissie Russell. Weeks later she discovered that she was pregnant with her fourth child
On November 2 last year, Orla McGregor and her husband James stood beaming for family photos at the baptism of their baby daughter Dearbhla.
It was a double celebration for the family of six, marking not only their youngest's Christening but also the seventh birthday of the couple's eldest daughter, Erin.
Their photos of the day are beautiful. Baby Dearbhla is gorgeous in her gown, all gummy smiles and chubby cheeks while Erin, her younger sister Aoibhinn (4) and brother Fionnbar (2) smile for the camera, decked out in their best coats and shoes. Proud mammy Orla stands behind them looking happy and healthy.
But of course photos only tell the story of one snap-shot in time and for this family the moment represents the best possible outcome after a year of trauma.
Exactly one year earlier on the same date, Orla (35) went to a hospital appointment that revealed she had a tumour in her left breast and that it was cancerous.
"I've had cysts ever since I was 18 years old," she explains. "So I've always been used to lumps and bumps and get checked regularly, especially after pregnancy, when I'd tend to feel changes in the breast."
It had been nearly two years since her son was born and Orla hadn't detected any changes in her breast, but incredibly it was her pet dog that alerted her to the possibility that something might be wrong.
"She started acting really strange and funny around me," recalls Orla. "She wouldn't let anyone come near me and if I went anywhere, she wanted to come too, she wouldn't leave me alone.
"I would be on the sofa, feeding the wee man, and she could come over beside me sniffing and nudging me on the left breast. I had a grope in the shower and couldn't feel anything but I thought 'there's maybe something not right there'."
A later breast-examination revealed that Orla's German shepherd, Saoirse, had pin-pointed exactly where the tumour was.
"It was entwined up in the middle of the cyst, that's why I didn't feel it," says Orla. "If it hadn't been for the dog, I would have been none the wiser."
It's something that might sound fanciful, but there's growing evidence to suggest that canines can detect cancer through smell. This year results presented at the Biochemistry and Molecular Biology annual meeting in Florida revealed that laboratory dogs, that had been trained to smell for cancer, were able to correctly identify the blood samples of cancer patients with 97pc accuracy.
The first weeks of November disappeared in trips to Antrim Area Hospital, near Orla's home in Moneyglass, Co Antrim. First mammograms, then biopsies. Despite living in limbo, normal life had to continue, including celebrating Erin's sixth birthday.
"I thought I was holding it together pretty well but on her birthday I broke down," admits Orla. "I remember thinking 'am I even going to be here next year to see her seventh birthday?'"
Orla needed an MRI - which uses radioactive dye - and so had to abruptly stop breastfeeding her little boy, something that both mum and child found incredibly difficult. Having breastfed all her children, the nursing relationship with Fionnbar was particularly emotional. "He took pneumonia at five-and-a-half weeks and was very close to death," reveals Orla. "I sat for five days in a chair in hospital and nursed him, letting him feed whenever he wanted to feed. It was a comfort for him and when he came out of it, I knew I would let him feed for as long as he wanted to.
"But when they told me I'd have to stop for the MRI, I knew I had to do it because, at the end of the day, I had to find out what was there. Weaning cold turkey was an awful experience, I think both of us cried until 5am the first night, but there was no other option."
On November 12, the biopsy results confirmed that the tumour was cancer and that a partial or a full mastectomy would be needed.
Orla's reaction to potentially losing her breast was pragmatic. "To be brutally honest, I thought 'right, take the both of them off if it means I'm still here'," she says. "If it means losing them to see the wee ones growing up - then take them off."
The surgery for breast removal and reconstruction was scheduled - but then Orla got another bit of shock news: she was pregnant.
"The doctors told me I was at a high risk of miscarriage by the time I went in for the mastectomy, so I didn't allow myself to get my hopes up," she says. "The cancer was spreading and I couldn't let it go to the end of pregnancy before doing something. I had children at home who needed me and I had to think about them as well. So I took my chance."
On December 18, Orla had the mastectomy. The tumour was nearly 13cm long. Christmas Day and News Year's went by in a no man's land. "On the 7th of January I went up to talk to the consultant and I knew as soon as I walked in that he was happy, I could see it in his eyes. He said 'we've got it'. The lymph nodes were clear and there had been a millimetre of tissue around the tumour that was clear when it came out. That was it.
"My husband and I went to the cafe and sat in pure silence for about five minutes. I couldn't speak. All that time I'd been going along thinking 'I have to do this, I have to do this, I have to do this' but I didn't know what would come next. If radiotherapy had been the next step then I didn't know what to do, because you can't go through that pregnant.
"I was at the stage of thinking the wee one had got a chance and I don't want to be interfering in that. She was about eight or 10 weeks at that point and she was developing and the heart rate was strong. Abortion was mentioned but my reaction was no way, that's my baby and I want to do as much as I can to keep her safe."
The next months were far from easy. In March, Orla contracted pneumonia and needed a CT scan because doctors were concerned she might have a clot on her lungs - posing another difficult choice between potentially harming the developing foetus or jeopardising her own health.
On top of morning sickness, she had to contend with managing drains for the reconstructive surgery. "Two days after the operation, I had tubes coming out of me filled with blood and had to hold on to this handbag they give you with the drains going into them. I'd be holding on to that handbag throwing up in the toilet," she says. "You don't realise how many chest muscles you use to vomit - it was agony."
But on August 12, Orla and James's 'little miracle' Dearbhla McGregor was born, 8lbs 12oz and perfectly healthy.
Orla had breastfed her other children and was hopeful from the outset that she could do the same for her youngest. "I'm on a breastfeeding support group on Facebook and I'd read about a mum breastfeeding twins," she reveals. "My thinking was 'well if she can feed two with two, then why can't I feed one with one?'"
Midwives were supportive but "I wasn't putting myself under pressure," adds Orla. "I said I'd give myself two weeks... then we got to two weeks and I thought 'well, we'll do another two weeks and now we're 16 weeks on and still going."
Orla decided to share her story after reading a post on the same breastfeeding support Facebook group, from a mum who had been diagnosed with cancer while pregnant. "I thought, that lady is sitting there, maybe by herself, not knowing what the hell is going on and I thought, if I can maybe reach out to her and say 'look, positive outcome here! Hopefully you'll get the better news, the same as I did. You can do it'," says Orla.
"Because there's nothing as scary and, even with family around you, you can feel very alone. But it can turn out OK. I just want to give that wee bit of hope to anyone who finds themselves in a similar situation.