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How we won the fight of our lives

Nicola Elmer, Aideen Rochford and Marie Barry are just three of the thousands of women who are diagnosed with breast cancer in Ireland every year. With early detection and treatment, many live to tell the tale of their ordeal and these women are no exception.

Each one visited her doctor as soon as she discovered something untoward. And with the Irish Cancer Society urging women to check for abnormalities during their Get The Girls campaign this month and Breast Cancer Awareness in October, the trio decided to tell their stories in a bid to raise awareness and to give women hope.

Nicola Elmer is a psychology student at Trinity College. Originally from South Africa, the 43-year-old discovered a lump 10 years ago and although tests revealed she had nothing to worry about, both she and her doctor were not convinced and requested a biopsy. This probably saved her life.

"I have always been very aware of the need to check for breast abnormalities, so when I felt a strange ridge-like bump in my left breast, I was slightly alarmed. I was only 33 and it wasn't the traditional pea-sized lump. Nevertheless, I knew there was something strange about it, so after procrastinating for 24 hours, I decided to go and see my GP.

"She made me an appointment for an ultrasound which showed up something in the breast tissue but as the radiographer wasn't sure what it was, the results came back inconclusive.

Numb

"But my doctor wasn't happy to leave it at that and decided to refer me to a breast specialist who said I was very young and it was unlikely that anything was wrong, but he would do a biopsy anyway.

"Two days later, I had a phone call asking me to come in to discuss the results. My husband Ewan wanted to come with me but I said there was no need as it would all be fine. Nothing could have prepared me for being told I had breast cancer -- I was utterly shocked, felt completely numb and as if on autopilot, drove all the way home before calling Ewan.

"When he came home, I was sitting in the middle of the floor in a daze. I felt like I had just walked into a brick wall and had no idea how to pick myself up and carry on.

"Ten days after being diagnosed, I went into hospital for a mastectomy. I didn't feel in any pain after the surgery but waking up and realising that there was nothing on the left side of my chest was absolutely devastating. I had always been big-breasted and this made the loss of my breast even more apparent.

"Then six weeks after my surgery, I started chemotherapy and began to lose my hair. This was an even worse shock than being told I had cancer. I felt so scared at the prospect and needed to get a handle on it. So Ewan and I decided to take the matter into our own hands and when the first clumps started to fall out, we opened a bottle of wine and shaved it all off. This was a really positive moment as for the first time since my diagnosis, I was in control of what was happening to me.

"The next few months were very tough as the chemo itself wasn't a good experience. But once it was over I had to make a decision about reconstruction. And although I really didn't want to go under the knife again, I was very young so it was worth doing. But I also decided that I deserved a boob job. So as well has having the left side reconstructed, I also had the right side reduced. Physically and mentally I am in the best shape I have ever been. I have no regrets about the journey I have been through over the past 10 years because although it was hard, I have a totally positive perspective on life. I look at things differently and realise that the little problems we encounter on a daily basis are unimportant in the great scheme of things."

Aideen Rochford (41, pictured left) lives in Wicklow with her husband Colm and their three children aged 13, 10 and seven. When she was just 35, she was prompted by a television advert to examine her breasts and after a cursory feel, was horrified to discover a hard lump. Although she had benign cysts in the past, this felt different and while doctors dismissed her fears, a biopsy soon revealed she had breast cancer.

"In October 2006 I was sitting in front of the TV when I saw an advert for the breast cancer awareness campaign. I'd had a lump in 2000 but it was benign so I had given up checking. But I thought I would just do a quick examination to see if everything felt okay. As soon as I put my hand down on the left breast I felt a lump.

"Colm is usually very optimistic but he was also worried, so I made an appointment with my GP for the next day. She said it felt like a cyst but told me to make an appointment with a consultant at St Vincent's. He agreed that it was a cyst and said to come back in a week to have it aspirated.

"Before the draining, I needed an ultrasound to locate it and the radiographer spotted something which made her request a mammogram and biopsy. When the results came back, the breast-check nurse said she would get the consultant to explain them to me. Alarm bells should have begun to ring, but my first thought was that he would be annoyed at being disturbed just to tell me about my cyst again.

"I was so unprepared for the news that I had breast cancer that I might as well have been punched in the face. No matter how much you worry about it happening to you, absolutely nothing prepares you for someone actually saying the words out loud.

"But being a woman and a mother, I had to get on with it. I had a lumpectomy and then began my chemotherapy in January 2007. I didn't mind losing my hair as much as I thought I would but my eldest son was worried that I would turn up to school with a bald head, so I always wore a bandana or a wig.

"It has been six years since my diagnosis and I feel brilliant now. Having cancer isn't a nice experience but it does change you for the better and if it is caught early, there is plenty of life afterwards."

Marie Barry (below) is 72. She is married to Ger and together they have five children. She had renal cancer when she was 55 and breast cancer when she was 60. She believes most cancers can be survived if detected early.

"I had renal cancer in 1995 and four years later, Ger and I were on a weekend away in Clare when I woke up with a fierce pain in my left nipple -- it was so bad I was nearly lifted off the bed with it. I went to the doctor as soon as I went home and he sent me for a mammogram which revealed a cyst on the right side.

"I was told it was benign and nothing to worry about but the following year, the exact same thing happened and when I went back and had a biopsy, doctors discovered that I had breast cancer. And as it was very close to the breast bone, I was told that I needed to have a mastectomy.

"I was very alarmed as this was just four-and-a-half years after the renal cancer and it was really strange that the pain was in the left but the cancer in the right. After the mastectomy, I spent six weeks in the Mater Private having radiotherapy done and I remember feeling really ill -- particularly over the Christmas period. But I strongly believe that attitude has a huge part to play in recovery. So despite feeling dreadful, I decided I was going to be positive. I could waste my life worrying about whether I would be taken by cancer or get on and enjoy every day."


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