Carly Mahady was just 24 when she learned that she had the disease. She shares her journey with cancer and why she feels it’s vital that all women undergo regular checks of their breasts
Carly Mahady’s reaction when she was told she had cancer in her right breast and needed a mastectomy at 24 is typical of the courage and grit demonstrated by the funny, spirited Dublin woman.
“I wasn’t too fazed about it because I never bleedin’ liked my chest anyway, and had always said I would get a boob job one day,” she says. “So I was like, ‘sure go on, you may as well take it’. I didn’t care what they did once they got rid of the cancer.”
While she never imagined breast cancer was coming down the tracks, Carly became aware of the disease when she was 16, after her school pal told her that having pains in the chest could be indicative of cancer.
“I said, ‘ah Shelly, give it over, that’s for older women — we don’t get that’,” says Carly. “I thought it was no big deal, but she told me you can get it at any age.”
After this conversation, Carly decided to check her own breasts at home and discovered a marble-like lump in her left breast. She decided to mention it to her family GP the next time she was there, who told her it was just fatty tissue and that young girls’ breasts change all the time due to hormones. Carly put it to the back of her mind until she began experiencing pains in her right breast in 2019, when she was aged 24 and working as a retail assistant in Penneys on O’Connell Street.
“I was getting a shooting pain, which I thought was a little bit strange,” she says, “but I was constantly running around after everyone else and put myself on the back burner. Also, it’s €60 for the doctor, and I was thinking that I could get myself an outfit for going out at the weekend.”
Carly was also suffering with her mental health and eventually decided that she needed a full GP check-up. Her aim was to get everything that was on her mind about her health checked out, so she went to a new GP, who decided to send her to a hospital breast clinic for reassurance.
The specialist at the hospital told Carly not to be concerned as she “wasn’t at the top of his worry list”, but sent her for an ultrasound as a precaution six weeks later. She instinctively knew there was something wrong when she heard the radiographer’s sharp intake of breath and three doctors came to examine the monitor.
“I thought it couldn’t be good,” Carly recalls. “They said I had to have a core needle biopsy and came in straight away to do it.”
It took around five weeks for all tests to be completed, and in the meantime, Carly had a lumpectomy in August 2019 on the lump she had first felt in her left breast at 16. This turned out to be a fibroadenoma, which is a common, benign breast tumour.
The tests on the tissue in her right breast were still taking place when Carly went away on holidays with her mother Sharon. While they were abroad, the hospital phoned Sharon and said that Carly would need to come in as soon as they were home.
“My mam is my best friend and has been with me through thick and thin,” Carly says. “She told me about the call as it wouldn’t have been fair to keep it from me. I said, ‘it’s okay mam, I know I have cancer’. I always call her the ‘queen of wishful thinking’ and God love her, I don’t think that it even occurred to her that I had cancer. She was trying to reassure me that it would all be okay.”
When they arrived home and attended the clinic, the news was broken that Carly had secretory carcinoma — a rare cancer previously known as juvenile breast carcinoma as it can affect children. It was renamed after recognition that it can present over a wide age range.
“I already knew in my heart and soul,” says Carly. Aside from the enormity of having cancer, most women would find the prospect of having a mastectomy very upsetting, but the surgeon assured Carly that she would have a full reconstruction at the same time.
Both procedures went smoothly and Carly healed very well, but she was informed that the cancer had spread to her lymph nodes so she needed to undergo chemotherapy and radiotherapy.
“They dropped the bomb on me that chemo can destroy the reproductive system,” adds Carly. “Kids aren’t something I’m overly pushed on even now, but they wanted to give me the option to retrieve my eggs, as things can change very rapidly, especially if you meet somebody.”
The process to retrieve Carly’s eggs involved an accelerated programme of daily injections, “super-charged” hormones and scans for three weeks. She says this was gruelling and the hardest part of the whole experience, but 14 viable eggs were retrieved.
Her chemotherapy began two weeks later in December 2019, but once Covid struck, she couldn’t have her mum with her during sessions, which made things more difficult. Her treatment ended in September 2020 and she was hugely relieved to be told the previous month that she was cancer-free.
“It felt surreal as I was still undergoing radiotherapy,” she says. “My scans have been clear for the past year, but obviously you’re not completely clear until five years.”
Carly is one of 3,704 people diagnosed with breast cancer each year in Ireland, and like her own story, each person affected has a different tale to tell. She has joined with The Marie Keating Foundation to mark Breast Cancer Awareness Month by partnering with Fleetwood Paints and well-known designer Róisín Lafferty.
They want to showcase how ‘Breast Cancer Isn’t Just Pink’ by unveiling a series of bespoke paint colours to represent the uniqueness of a breast cancer diagnosis and journey.
“People always associate purple with me,” Carly says. “It’s my favourite colour and when you look at secretory carcinoma cells under the microscope, they’re actually purple, which I found mad.”
Carly says that any other anxieties and worries about work and social life receded as she concentrated on dealing with the cancer. This even extended to her appearance. “Any insecurities I had about how I looked disappeared,” she admits. “I said, ‘look Carly, you’re going to lose every hair on your head and you’ll be swollen, so there’s no hope you’ll be looking well. Your superficialness kind of leaves you because you have one purpose only and that’s to get better.”
There are lingering side effects and Carly gets fatigued quickly and bruises extremely easily, so she feels a bit physically fragile. Obviously it has taken a mental toll, too. Now 26, the strong and determined young woman has become a huge advocate for the breast screening age of 50 being lowered.
Thinking back to the young schoolgirl who didn’t have a clue about cancer, she firmly believes that awareness should be taught at school.
“I know your breasts change over time, but we should have been made aware of the possibility that you can get cancer at any age,” she says.
“I think women’s breasts should be checked when they’re going in for contraception and it should be part of a general check-up. It’s very important to highlight that cancer doesn’t discriminate and younger people are diagnosed with it all of the time.”
The Breast Cancer Isn’t Just Pink video, breast cancer information and links to the Marie Keating Foundation’s support groups for every stage of a breast cancer journey, can be found at mariekeating.ie/notjustpink