Tuesday 12 November 2019

'You try to put your life back together, but you’re not the same anymore' - two mothers share their tales of kids, cancer and menopause

The rates of breast cancer in women of childbearing years are on the rise, creating a uniquely challenging set of circumstances for those with young families and leaving an impact that can linger long after treatment concludes

Olivia Carpenter from was diagnosed with breast cancer eight years ago, aged 34. Photo: Mark Condren
Olivia Carpenter from was diagnosed with breast cancer eight years ago, aged 34. Photo: Mark Condren

Emily Hourican

Surviving cancer is a gift, but it isn't, usually, the end of the story. For those who have been through such a diagnosis, there is a process of coming to terms not just with the disease, but also the treatment, the side-effects of that treatment, and a life that can be greatly changed by all of these.

Given that breast cancer is statistically likely to impact on women with relatively young children, often with ageing parents, at a time of life that is busy and full of responsibility, the ongoing impact of cancer and treatment can be considerable. Even when they are 'the lucky ones'. Often, this aftermath isn't spoken about or acknowledged, meaning women can feel isolated and confused about being 'better,' but not always feeling it.

Paula McClean was 42 when she was diagnosed, eight years ago now. "I was at a wedding," she says, "and I was applying my fake tan in the hotel bedroom when I found a lump in my left breast. I got a fright, but I didn't think it was breast cancer. I thought I was too young, too healthy, and because my mother had no history of it, I thought I'd be fine."

Paula, who now is the face of a BCI campaign in collaboration with Vero Moda, did nothing for a week or so. "I just kept checking, hoping that it was hormonal and would go away. My daughters were small - aged four, six and eight - and I was busy. But also, I think I thought that if I didn't think about it, it would go away. There was a childish naivety in me…"

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"You go back to doing the things you used to do, but your still dealing with the emotional side-effects' - Paula McClean. Photo: Steve Humphreys

The lump didn't go and so, after two weeks, Paula went to her GP and was sent for tests. "A few days after that, I got a call asking me to come in the next day, with my husband. That was the hardest day of my life, because I knew this couldn't be OK. They weren't calling me in for good news."

Getting the diagnosis was "unbelievably tough and heart-breaking. I'm eight years on, and I will still get extremely emotional and sad about that particular day." After an initial period of shock, Paula " went into making-plans mode. I started reading up, educating myself, putting my plan in place. I needed people to look after my children while I had surgery and chemotherapy. My priorities at that time were to get better, for my children. And for my parents, my siblings. I was very conscious of how hard it was for them as well."

Paula was "lucky, I suppose" in that the cancer was caught relatively early. She had a mastectomy of the left breast and then chemotherapy. "I did six rounds of chemo, and I just focussed on getting through it. I had pneumonia after the last round and that took a long time to get over."

She was put on Tamoxifen, to block oestrogen, and that, combined with the chemotherapy, has meant, "I went into menopause. That's something I didn't expect. That was hard. Usually menopause happens over a good few years, it doesn't happen over a couple of weeks. But it does when it's a medical menopause. So that was very hard."

Since finishing treatment, Paula has had a couple of "scares, neither of which was anything, thank goodness, but I have found there is still a fear that stays with me. You try to put your life back together, but you're not the same anymore. As time has gone on I've become more confident, but it is a grieving process.

"There is a fear of recurrence, and that fear of recurrence is really real. I think when you come out from something like that, you don't feel the same as other people. You look at life a different way. I felt that life was exceptionally fragile. I wanted to put cotton wool around everyone I love, and keep them safe.

"I became more of a worrier. I wanted to be constantly with my kids, my close family, because I didn't want to miss a thing, and that is a difference in me. That has continued. I don't take anything for granted. I think life is exceptionally precious."

Life, Paula points out, goes on, because that is what life does. "You go back to doing the things you used to do, your hair grows back, you look the same as you used to, but you're still dealing with some of the physical side-effects, you're also dealing with the emotional side-effects.

"Everybody wants you to be well - they want to believe that everything is fine - and that is pressure in itself. Do you put on a mask and go out and say 'I'm great'? Maybe. But there are still pieces inside me that are heartbroken over what happened. I think that will always be with me. I feel lucky and happy and life is good - I'm very healthy, I run - and people think 'it's over now…' but it isn't. Women who've been through it understand that. That's why we need to talk to each other."

Coincidentally, Olivia Carpenter was diagnosed at almost the same times as Paula, eight years ago, when Olivia was just 34, mother of three children aged eight, 10 and 11. "I had completed a charity run, and I came home and my husband, Gavin, gave me a hug, and he felt a lump sticking into his chest."

At the time, Olivia's father had just been diagnosed with stomach cancer, and family anxiety was obviously high. "Everyone around me seemed to be having a panic attack about the lump except me," she says, "but I went to my GP, and she sent me straight for tests."

The first doctor Olivia saw said he thought it was fibroadenoma, a common type of benign breast tumour. A second doctor concurred, but then a third opinion was sought, from a surgeon, who said 'I'm going to get a biopsy on that.' "A few days later, we went back to the hospital," Olivia recalls, and the surgeon said 'I'm really sorry, it's breast cancer.' My world changed there and then."

Olivia too, was 'lucky' in that the cancer was caught early. She had a lumpectomy, chemotherapy every six weeks for a year, accompanied by Herceptin, and eight weeks of daily radiotherapy. "I lost my hair, and I lost an awful lot of weight. Between trying to fight my own battle and worrying about my dad, and the kids who were small, it was very tough. But I had to try and pick myself up and just keep going," she says.

"I suppose when you're going through cancer, you take everything you're given," she says. "You don't stop and ask questions - 'what's this going to do to my insides…?' It's literally, 'give me all you've got, so I can beat this.' That's really where my mind was."

But now, eight years on, "it's as if I'm heading into menopause. I was told the possibility was there that I would jump into early menopause after the treatment. My period is irregular, I get really bad hot flushes, I find I am always in the loo, it's like my bladder has gone really weak since I had chemo. And the anxiety at times is horrific."

How does she cope? "I've learned to manage it, through counselling. Through meditation and walking, I find sanctuary at the top of Killiney Hill, walking with my husband and the dog. It's like I find if I'm left alone with my thoughts, that's when my brain goes into overdrive and the anxiety really kicks in.

"I'm a keep-busy kind of person. I love the gym, I love running - I find that very therapeutic. I love getting my hair done, my nails. And I have a great group of girlfriends, and my sister. For the first two or three years after the diagnosis, it used to eat me up. But now I'm at the stage where I can say to myself, 'come on Olivia, cop on!'"

All the same, she doesn't make plans for far into the future.

"I used to make long-term plans, but since I've been sick, I don't any more. I say that every day that I'm here is a good day. I take every day as a gift.

"You learn not to sweat the small stuff. You learn that things don't have to be perfect all the time, and you don't have to keep up with everyone else. I'm getting to the stage where I am happy with where I'm at. I'm a lot more accepting of where I am; I look in the mirror and I see the scars and I think, 'that's part of me, part of who I am.'"

For more information and support, see breastcancerireland.com

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