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How breast cancer screening saved our lives

Fionnuala O'Neill, from Newry, and Nicola Porter, from Carrickfergus, on why women in their 40s and over-70 should take free test

Published 13/10/2015

Battling back: Nicola Porter has beaten cancer thanks to early screening
Battling back: Nicola Porter has beaten cancer thanks to early screening
Battling back: Fionnuala O’Neill has beaten cancer thanks to early screening
Action Cancer's Big Bus visits 220 locations across NI every year, for workplace and public screening

During breast cancer awareness month, Action Cancer is once again encouraging women aged 40-49 and over 70 to come forward for screening

It's the only charity in the UK and Ireland to offer free breast screening to asymptomatic women in those age groups, which fall outside the health service screening age range (50-70).

The free screening takes place both at Action Cancer House in Belfast and on board the charity's Big Bus, supported by SuperValu NI and its independent retailers. It travels to 225 locations throughout Northern Ireland every year.

Approximately 1,270 women are diagnosed with breast cancer in Northern Ireland every year and 300 die from it.

For every 1,000 women screened by Action Cancer, an average of six cancers are detected.

The charity's digital mammography equipment can detect cancer in its early stages when treatment can be more successful.

Last year, Action Cancer screened a record 10,079 women and detected 62 cancers.

The vast majority of women who come for screening will receive clear results and will be given peace of mind.

The campaign, which has been supported by Gordons Chemists over the last eight years, welcomes additional support for a second year running year from partners Menarys and Tempest, helping to spread the key message to target audiences that "early detection saves lives".

Here, two women who owe their lives to the charity's work share their stories to encourage other women to book a mammogram.

'It took a year out of my life... but I've got the rest of my life'

Nicola Porter (47) is a gain manager in the Regulation and Quality Improvement Authority in Belfast and lives at home with her parents in Carrickfergus.

She says she has a history of cancer. "At the age of 15 a tumour was discovered after a roller-skate fall. I was only 15 and lost my leg and had to have chemotherapy. To be honest, I think my family felt the effects more than I did, watching me go through it.

"Because of this I was always aware of all the cancer charities in Northern Ireland and the services that they offer, including Action Cancer's breast screening programme. Mum is in her 70s, so since I've been 40 we've attended the service together every two years for screening."

Following Nicola's third screening at the age of 46, she had what she describes as a "gut feeling" that something was wrong. A week later she received a letter saying that something had been picked up in her left breast.

Nicola then underwent further investigation at the breast clinic at Belfast City Hospital, which included a second mammogram and a needle biopsy. Nicola's fears were confirmed - she was diagnosed with breast cancer in March 2015. Her tumour was approximately 1.3cm in width and she was told that she would need surgery, radiotherapy and possibly chemotherapy.

Nicola admits: "I thought 'Here we go again'. Two weeks later I had surgery and reconstruction. At that stage the tumour was larger than first thought, at approximately 2.3cm. I tested positive for a particular hormone which meant that it could have grown that rapidly in such a short time, which was a frightening thought."

During surgery Nicola had lymph nodes removed and tested and the results came back clear. Her tumour was sent to America for a diagnostic test to determine whether or not she should have chemotherapy.

"My results came back right in the middle of the scale, which left the decision in my hands. It was a hard choice because if I didn't take chemo, I might be alright but then again, if the cancer came back I would kick myself. I decided I just had to go with it and try to limit the possibility of the cancer returning, so I wouldn't have to go through it all again."

Nicola embarked on a course of chemotherapy in June 2014, and this ended in August. She felt sick and lost her hair, her joints hurt and it was sore to walk. The radiotherapy started in October and finished in November. Nicola found this tiring and had a metallic taste in her mouth.

But going through the treatments proved worthwhile and Nicola was given good news in November: "I had a scan and was told that I was cancer free, I was ready to get my life back on track, get back to work and get back to normality."

Understandably, Nicola has a strong message for women considering coming for screening. "Life is unpredictable. You don't know what is round the corner but you can take positive action to reduce your risk of dying of breast cancer by attending Action Cancer for screening. I dread to think how big the cancer would have grown before I would have noticed a lump and done something about it."

And she adds: "Living in Northern Ireland, we are in a privileged position as there's nowhere else in the UK or Europe that offer this free service, so take advantage of it. I tell everyone about it and I'm very active on Facebook trying to encourage other women to come forward."

This summer Nicola went to Florida with her brother's family and really enjoyed the experience. She is now on Tamoxifen and though it has some side-effects she feels like her cancer journey is now well and truly behind her.

"The way I see my breast diagnosis is, yes, it was a year out of my life and, yes, it has been hard, but on the other hand I thank God it was only a year out of my life and thanks to the Action Cancer Screening Programme, I've got the rest of my life to live," she adds.

'My journey has been difficult, but I'm doing well and cancer free'

Fionnuala O'Neill (47) is a social worker and lives in Killean, outside Newry, with her husband Shane, daughter Grainne (17) and two boys, Fearghal (14) and Niall (12).

She says it was her friend Deborah, a nurse, who kept planting the seed in her head when she entered her 40s to go and get an Action Cancer breast screening. "However, I just kept putting it on the long finger.

I was fit, healthy, had a good diet and had no history of breast cancer in my family, so why would I be at risk?"

But it was on Deborah's fourth prompting that Fionnuala, then 44, finally booked an appointment on board Action Cancer's Big Bus when it came to the Orana Children and Family Centre on the Warrenpoint Road in Newry in March 2013.

"I was on and off the Big Bus in 20 minutes," she recalls. "This was my first mammogram and I didn't find the screening painful or at all uncomfortable. It was quick, efficient and the staff were brilliant."

Fionnuala received a letter within a few weeks of her appointment saying that something had been picked up on the mammogram and that further assessment was needed.

"I wasn't overly worried at this stage as the radiographer had said that a lot of women are called back and it's usually nothing," she says.

Fionnuala travelled up to Belfast on her own and attended the City Hospital for another mammogram and a core needle biopsy. "When I was told that a second needle biopsy was required at that point, I knew something was up. I had a bad feeling when other women came and went, but I was still there late into the afternoon. My fears were confirmed and I was diagnosed with breast cancer in my left breast. Breaking the news to my family was devastating, but from the outset I was told that my cancer was treatable. Although the news was devastating I clung to those words, hopeful that I would beat it."

Following surgery, Fionnuala's treatment plan included chemotherapy, radiotherapy and a course of Herceptin. "My cancer journey has been difficult, but I'm now doing well and pleased to report that I'm cancer free."

Fionnuala was told that she never would have found the lump on her own as it was seated deep into the breast. "I dread to think what would have happened if I hadn't got on the Big Bus that day.

"Now I tell everyone I meet about the Big Bus and how it saved my life. My message to other women aged 40-49 and 70 plus is never make the assumption that you don't need to go for screening for whatever reason as this can be a fatal mistake. Come on ladies, don't bury your head in the sand any longer, get online and book your appointment today.

"Tell your friends and family and anyone you know of this life-saving service. The more people that know about it, the more lives can be saved."

Coming to a town near you, the bus you shouldn't miss

  • Action Cancer's Big Bus visits 220 locations across NI every year, for workplace and public screening
  • It provides digital breast screening for women and MOT health checks for men and women
  • SuperValu and its independent retailers have provided £1.5m of funding for the bus since it began in 2006
  • Women aged 40-49 and 70 plus can book an appointment on board the Big Bus or at Action Cancer House in south Belfast at www.actioncancer.org. Or by calling 028 9080 3344
  • To support Action Cancer's fundraising, email info@actioncancer.org

The signs to look for

The first symptom of breast cancer most women notice is a lump or an area of thickened tissue in their breast. Most lumps (90%) are not cancerous, but it is always best to have them checked by your doctor.

See your GP if you notice any of the following:

  • a lump or area of thickened tissue in either breast 
  • a change in the size or shape of one or both breasts 
  • discharge from either of your nipples (which may be streaked with blood) 
  • a lump or swelling in either of your armpits 
  • dimpling on the skin of your breasts 
  • a rash on or around your nipple 
  • a change in the appearance of your nipple, such as becoming sunken into your breast

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