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Action Cancer Moonlight Walk: Why are these women taking part?

Karen Totten found out she'd breast cancer thanks to a screening programme, while Eileen McConnell will be remembering her mum. Kerry McKittrick on the heartwarming stories behind this annual event

If you're out on the town this Friday night and happen across a train of pink-clad people heading in the same direction, don't be alarmed. Far from the world's biggest hen party, it will in fact be the Action Cancer Moonlight Walk, which is being held to raise funds for the Action Cancer Breast Cancer Screening Service.

Since 1978 the charity has been offering free breast cancer screening to women aged 40-49 or over 70. Around 1,100 women are screened each month and the service has saved countless lives with its early detection.

One of the largest events of its kind, the Moonlight Walk was established in 2009 and has raised a whopping £600,000 to go towards services such as breast screenings, which cost just £80 to carry out. Around 1,000 people are due to take part in the event this Friday, walking 10 miles around Belfast at night. A Half Moon Walk of just four miles is also available, and the event is open to women, men and even children, as long as they're accompanied by an adult.

As they limber up for the big night, we speak to four women whose lives have been affected by breast cancer in various ways about why they will taking part.

 

‘I felt so raw when mum died, but the walk turns it into something positive’

Eileen McConnell (46) is a nurse and lives in Belfast with her husband, Brendan, and their children, Kirsten (21), Kerry (20) and Zoe (15). She says:

We do the Moonlight Walk every year in memory of my mother, Alice Hunter. This year the walk will actually fall on the fourth anniversary of her death.

She was diagnosed about eight months before her death and had a radical mastectomy.

When they went in to do the surgery, they discovered that it had spread, but the primary cancer was breast cancer. They had actually thought it was an early diagnosis but after the surgery, we realised it would be a case of giving palliative care, so mummy came home to us. We wanted to nurse her at home — me, my brothers and sisters and family.

It was a shock, but mummy hadn't been feeling the best. Even when she came home she had lots of visitors and she was always up making meals. We even had Tyrone GAA manager Mickey Harte come to visit her, as she was a great Tyrone woman. She went downhill very quickly after the surgery, though, and passed away.

I’ve done the walk with my sisters, my daughters and even my husband and brother. Anyone who is available takes part.

Coming up to the first anniversary, I felt so raw and so down and I decided to do the walk to change the energy that was seeping out of me in grief. I wanted to turn it into something positive.

That's the way I encouraged the rest of the family — it was something to do in honour of mummy and if it raises the chances of one family not having to go through what we did, then it's absolutely worth it. It's just £80 to have someone screened and if we can help even one person, then that's brilliant.

I normally start training during the Easter holidays but I've not been able to start this year until recently. We're a sea of pink and there's great camaraderie on the night.”

 

‘You never get used to seeing people cope with being told they’ve cancer’

Alison Hall (26) is an endoscopy nurse at the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast. She lives in Lisburn with her fiance Chris Armstrong. She says:

There will be around 20 nurses from our unit taking part in the Moonlight Walk. Last year we raised nearly £500 between 12-13 of us so we want to beat that. It's a great event — a bit of a challenge but it has such a good atmosphere.

The main reason we wanted to do it is because a large part of our work is diagnosing cancer. Every day there will be at least one person being told they have it so we want to reduce the numbers as much as we can and will do anything we can to help see them fall.

I also work in the bowel cancer screening service at the Belfast City Hospital once a week and when you work in that kind of environment you try to help people out in as many ways as possible.

I became a nurse because it suited my personality.

I love talking to patients and spending time with them. We see people going through some strong emotions when they're diagnosed. It's not something you ever get used to.

Nursing is being with someone on their particular journey and in our unit we're with them from the very beginning.

You try to treat people as they want to be treated.”

 

‘My best friend was diagnosed shortly before I was told I had it'

Lisa Hutchings (48) is a business manager who lives in Belfast with her husband, Drew, and they have two sons, Tom (10) and Jack (5). Drew also has three children from a previous marriage, Rebecca (25), Matthew (20) and John (18). |She says:

I went to Action Cancer just for a screening — a couple of my friends had breast cancer before the age of 50, so I thought it was a good idea.

I first went in 2010 and got the all-clear. I went again in December 2012, and then got the letter referring me to the City Hospital.

They found something called Ductal Carcinoma In Situ — there were cells in the milk ducts that were turning cancerous. It's a very early form of breast cancer.

It was a huge shock for me, especially as my best friend was diagnosed shortly before I was. The cells they found were about 10 centimetres long and the only way to ensure that they had got rid of them all was to remove the breast — it was also to prevent cells from the milk ducts from spreading to other parts of the body.

If they hadn't planned to give me a mastectomy, then I would have asked for one. I had my breast removed and then reconstructive surgery.

I didn't have any other forms of treatment, although it's taken months for me to heal due to complications following surgery.

When the pathology came back after the surgery to confirm there was no spread to the lymph nodes from the breast, I was so relieved. I didn't realise how pleased I was until I was told — then I couldn't speak for 10 minutes because I was crying so hard. It's something you try to push to the back of your mind, but you just can't.

Finding out was a complete

shock. So many things go through your head — what are you going to do, what will happen to your kids if you die, what will your husband do?

I am now on a yearly mammogram programme and I don't need to take any drugs or anything.

If I hadn't have gone to Action Cancer and had waited until I was 50 it's probable that it would have turned into an invasive tumour that would really have affected me.

Ever since then I tell everyone over the age of 40 to go and get it done, because that test probably saved my life.”

 

‘I nearly cancelled my appointment as I felt stupid, but I’m glad I didn’t’

Karen Totten (49), from Belfast, works in customer sales at Translink. She is married to David and she has three grown-up children. She says:

I was diagnosed with breast cancer on April 2 of this year. Action Cancer had posted a link in February about their health checks and screening programmes. I followed the link and discovered they also offer mammograms. You're given regular mammograms once you turn 50 but not before then.

I ended up making an appointment, even though I didn't have any symptoms at all or family history of the disease.

I nearly cancelled the appointment on the day because I felt a bit stupid going, but I decided to go anyway.

I got a letter two weeks later saying I needed further checks and referring me to the City Hospital in Belfast. I still wasn't very concerned at that point because again I didn't find any lumps and there were no other symptoms. I just wasn't that worried. Then I went to the hospital and was told that I had cancer in my left breast. It was totally out of the blue.

If my friend hadn't posted that Action Cancer link I wouldn't have thought about it until I turned 50.

It was caught in the very early stages, although they couldn't tell me what stage I was at until I’d had surgery and biopsies.

I had a lump removed from my breast and was told that it was stage one and it hadn't progressed beyond my lymph nodes. Then I was prescribed a course of radiotherapy, which I'm undergoing at the moment.

Getting those results was a big relief, but discovering I had cancer in the first place was a big shock.

My treatment will go on for another couple of weeks and it does make you feel fatigued, but I'm just grateful that it was caught in time.

I'm hoping to do the full 10 miles in the Moonlight Walk but I'll see how it goes on the night.

I made a donation when I was screened but I want to give more back to them, as that screening probably saved my life!

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