Sligo woman credits Kylie Minogue in becoming more aware of breast cancer and consequently in her own diagnosis
Caroline Flynn getting through devastating blow of breast cancer which has also struck her first cousin.
Caroline Flynn was going about her life as normal - working as a mental health nurse and studying for her masters, while planning her wedding to her partner Joe.
When the Ballisodare native discovered a lump in her right breast, it wasn’t automatically a cause for concern.
This was because Caroline has had dense tissue in her breasts for a long time, and has made several trips to her GP to have it looked at in case.
This time, however it was different.
Caroline, who now lives in Manorhamilton, was working away under a new clinical programme with the HSE for adults with ADHD when she noticed this particular lump.
She told The Sligo Champion: “I would have always had dense tissue, I would have a few times gone to the symptomatic breast clinic in Galway to get that checked.
“There was never anything there, this one I thought the exact same. I thought I’d go to the GP as I normally do, and I’d get referred and get it checked out.”
Due to the pandemic, delays in referrals meant Caroline had to made around two months for a referral to the Symptomatic Breast Clinic in Galway.
“I was looked after very well. I got a triple assessment, mammogram, the ultrasound on both breasts and two biopsies - one where the cyst was, which was just a cyst.
“They seen something on the biopsy, and they biopsied under the arm and the outer areas where they thought there might be something.”
The 47-year-old had booked a holiday to Lanzarote in the following days, and received clearance to go on this holiday.
The holiday abroad took her mind off the results that she was waiting for, and when she returned she was given her results.
“When I returned I was told I had hormone positive type breast cancer.
“At the time I wasn’t aware that there is several different types of breast cancer, I’m very well educated on it now.”
Caroline was told she would need eight sessions of chemotherapy, followed by a lumpectomy, with a wire guided full ancillary clearance to follow and then radium and hormone treatment which she would need for life.
“When you get a diagnosis it’s very devastating. Everything changes.
“That was November. Then you have to have various scans, full body scans, PET scan which looks at the whole body to look for cancer that may have spread, and they discovered an area in my spine and I had to have a biopsy on my spine before I could start any treatment.
“Thankfully that came back negative. I had a month of various scans and tests before my chemo started and the chemo started on December 20th. I had that every two weeks in Sligo University under Dr Martin and I have to thank the team in there, they’re fantastic.”
Caroline underwent seven sessions of chemo.
There were side effects for her. As a result of chemo, she had 2 herniated discs Lumbar & Sacral and peripheral neuropathy in her toes.
“I did very well on chemo and the various side effects, it’s not easy going through chemo. It’s not easy for your family and friends watching you going through chemo.
“I was always very conscious of them while I was going through it.
“Chemo is difficult but the staff look after you very well. I’d urge anyone starting on the journey not to be afraid because you will be looked after very well.
“The team in Sligo are fantastic. That was that. I finished that in March.”
The next stage of Caroline’s treatment starts this Thursday, as she goes to Galway for her surgery.
It’s a long road, and there will be many more hospital appointments for Caroline in the coming years.
“It’s all stages, all your pre-scans, your diagnosis, everyone’s treatment is individual to everyone.
“I’ve a good bit of treatment to go, I’ve surgery, then radium once recovery time is 5-6 weeks after that surgery.
“Then radium, I don’t know my treatment plan for that yet. I think I start hormone therapy after the surgery, for me that will be life-long treatment.
“The usual rule of thumb is 8-10 years but for me it will be life-long because of that area in the spine, even though the biopsy came back negative, they are erring on the side of caution.”
There’s been a lot of lessons for Caroline to take from her cancer diagnosis.
Her positivity shines through as she speaks about her difficult journey, rather than focusing too much on the difficult days she is keen to offer words of encouragement to others who may be going through something similar.
“Naturally enough, when you get a diagnosis you’re in shock.
“You go through all the motions and all these appointments, everything is so busy. In the back of your mind, your mortality comes into your head naturally enough, like death and dying which is a subject we don’t talk about too much.
“It’s not just about your physical health. It’s about your mental health too.
“Keeping yourself motivated and positive, I took that attitude from the very beginning, I decided I would say positive.
“A lot of people I spoke to, supports that gave me hope that this is very treatable that if anyone does find anything to not be afraid to go to your GP and get it looked after, even if you think it’s nothing because the treatments are so good these days.
“There’s a lot of positive stories out there and women have lived with breast cancer, living normal lives with a good quality of life.”
There are tough days, of course, and there are concerns too.
“It’s devastating. Your whole world changes, your career - I’ve had to stop working. I haven’t been at work since.
“You’re worried about money, paying your mortgage and your bills, you’re worried about your relationship with your partner and your family, my parents - worried about them worrying about me.
“My partner Joe surprised me after night duty and proposed in May 2020 and we were due to marry this October but we’ve put that back to May next year so all going well we will be getting married in May next year.”
There are things to look forward to, though, and that positive energy is helpful for Caroline.
“You’re excited about that and then you have to change all of that. I’m positive and that keeps me going because I look forward to the good days. As you go through the treatment, yes there are bad days and I do get down.
“I do have days where I don’t get dressed and don’t leave the house.
“I have cried. Naturally enough but I have fantastic support from my family and friends and the community in general have been really good.”
For Caroline, reading stories of singer and actress Kylie Minogue’s breast cancer diagnosis in 2005 raised her awareness of the issue.
Reading about Minogue, who was 36 at the time, made Caroline sit up and pay attention to herself.
She noticed dense tissue in her breasts and even though in the end the cyst in her breast wasn’t a cancerous lump, if it wasn’t for that lump, she wouldn’t have got her breasts checked.
And, on top of that, it would have been easy for Caroline to ignore the lump having had similar lumps looked at before only to find nothing sinister.
She added: “Mine goes back to, the first time I had issues was about twenty years ago. The time Kylie Minogue had breast cancer, a young lady and everyone was in shock that she would have cancer.
“And people were wondering why young people weren’t having mammograms. Around that time I started noticing, maybe around menstruation that I had lumps and bumps in my breasts and I did get them checked and I did continue to do that and that’s the only reason I did that.
“The Kylie Minogue story sort of made me aware of it, to get the message out to people to not be afraid to get it all checked out.
“Don’t worry about people thinking you’re paranoid. It’s not just for women, men can also get breast cancer.
“If you have any history of breast cancer at all, do not be fearful of checking of asking for a check,” Caroline urged.
She continued: “This particular time I thought I was perimenopausal, which is topical at the minute. There was a programme on RTE other night about it. I thought I was perimenopausal, I thought I was stressed with working and studying and normal life and I put it down to that.
“In hindsight, I probably should have gone to the GP sooner. The lump doesn’t always appear, and in my case the lump wasn’t cancerous but it did show up cancer.
“Any symptoms, we brush that off as women too. For me, that’s been a lesson to go sooner no matter what symptom you have. Get checked.
“That Kylie Minogue story almost 20 years ago was what encouraged me to check my self regularly, and I check my breasts regularly, in the shower or in bed or wherever you’re comfortable doing it. 1 in 9 women will be diagnosed with breast caner in their lifetime.”
Statistics show that about 23% of all women diagnosed with breast cancer in Ireland are between 20 and 50 years of age.
In an almost cruel turn of events, Caroline learned later that her first cousin, Colette Peacock was also diagnosed with the same type of breast cancer.
There’s a week between the two in age, and it was a huge blow to their family when they were both diagnosed.
But, having one another means they have each other’s support throughout their respective journeys.
“The family connection, there was two of us and we support each other on our journey. It was a bit of a shock for the whole family. There a week between us in age.
“Colette works as a midwife in Sligo. She has four children. When we spoke to each other when we found out, it was quite emotional for us and for our parents and siblings.
“In that here was two girls from the same family so then you have all the concerns about is there a genetic part?
“She’s very positive as well. We helped each other through our journeys as well.
“And having the support of Breast Cancer Ireland.”
Caroline may have a long road ahead of her - but her positivity means she is tackling this head on.
Earlier this week, Caroline walked the final steps of her 100km in 30 days - raising funds for Breast Cancer Ireland in the process, and she is now an ambassador for the event.
Last year’s 100K in 30 Days event raised €1.7 million for Breast Cancer Ireland, and organisers are calling on everyone, whether you’re based in Ireland or abroad, to join the #pinkarmy and take part in the June event. Registration is now open at www.100kin30days.ie.
The event, sponsored by Sherry FitzGerald, is open to everyone - runners, walkers, those in wheelchairs, families, colleagues, schools, community groups, and sports teams. 100K in 30 Days was founded by Co. Louth (Blackrock, Dundalk) couple Niall Carroll and Cara McAdam and launched in 2020 after Cara was diagnosed with breast cancer. Over the last two years, 38,000 people in 36 countries have taken part raising €3million for Breast Cancer Ireland.
Funds raised by the event have gone towards the following: - Equipment for a new state-of-the-art Clinical Trial Centre due to open at the new Breast Centre on the Beaumont Hospital Campus in June. This new Centre will offer truly translational medicine to patients and will change the landscape positively into the future. All of this will take place under one roof under the watchful eye of a multidisciplinary team.
- The Shamrock Trial – a new clinical trial into Her2+ breast cancer that is being created to examine a fourth generation drug and its effectiveness as part of the treatment plan, de-escalating the need for chemotherapy in the process.
- Research Nurses - supporting specialist breast research nurses in the eight designated cancer centres, whose role is to collaborate and collect patient tissue and serum samples into one large national biobank, allowing clinicians and scientists nationally to avail of the full yearly compliment (3,700) and thereby speeding up research discovery output. Before these nurses were recruited, each Centre may have had 1 paper in 18-24 months, and now in the past year one centre alone has 12 peer reviewed research papers published, activating new clinical trials.
- Triple-Negative breast cancer research - led by Dr Paul Mullan, from the Patrick G Johnston Centre for Cancer Research at Queens University Belfast. This research, which commenced in October 2018, is now showing very promising results in the fight against the growth and spread of the most aggressive Triple Negative Breast Cancers (TNBC’s). Research is progressing and is close to publication / clinical trial development.
Caroline and her cousin Colette are just two of the many people across the country taking part in the event.
They have both set up a league that participants from the Sligo/Leitrim area are invited to join.
To find their league, search for ‘Caroline and Colette’s Pink Army’ after registering at www.100kin30days.ie
Caroline said: “The league is for some friendly motivation. It’s good for everyone to get out walking physically and it’s good for mental health too.
“We would like people to get on board in Sligo and Leitrim, sports clubs, community organisations, individuals, that would be fantastic,” Caroline told The Sligo Champion.
“And let’s have a pink army around Sligo and Leitrim and raise funds for finding a cure and better treatment for breast cancer.
“All the information is on the website on breastcancerireland.com.”
Caroline paid tribute to Alicia Grant, Operations Manager of Breast Cancer Ireland and Niall Carroll for ‘their trojan work and fantastic support’.