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This cancer test is free and it could just save your life

Published 23/11/2016

Cancer survivor: Jacqueline Scott
Cancer survivor: Jacqueline Scott
Cancer survivor: Amanda Higginbottom
Difficult journey: Jacqueline Scott and her son Alexander
Speaking up: Cancer ambassadors Joan Holden, Amanda Higginbottom, Maria McCracken, Louise Kimber, Louise Skelton and Jacqueline Scott
Strong support: Amanda Higginbottom and her partner Baz

With 1,280 women here diagnosed with breast cancer - which claims the lives of 300 - a mammogram that takes just minutes to conduct could turn out to be a lifesaver.

Action Cancer is the only charity in the UK and Ireland to offer free breast screening to asymptomatic women aged between 40 and 49 and over 70 - those who fall outside the health service's screening age range of 50 to 70.

The free screening is on offer at Action Cancer House in Belfast and on board the charity's Big Bus, supported by SuperValu NI and its independent retailers, which travels to 235 sites in Northern Ireland every year.

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.

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

‘Mine was caught early... a routine screening may have been too late’

Jacqueline Scott, who works part-time as an administrative assistant, lives in Moneyreagh with her 13-year-old son, Alexander. Jacqueline's breast cancer was detected by Action Cancer's breast screening service in November 2014, when she was 48. Now cancer-free, she says:

'I had always been aware of Action Cancer's breast screening service for women in their 40s and over the age of 70, but had never gone.

I have supported the local Action Cancer Moneyreagh and District fundraising group through events such as fashion shows and BBQs and had thought of booking onto the Big Bus a few times, but with life being so busy, I never got round to it.

One day in October 2014, however, I was off work and sat down to watch This Morning. Elizabeth Hurley was being interviewed by Phillip Scofield and Amanda Holden. Liz was talking about how she buys mammograms for her girlfriends in their 40s as birthday gifts and about the importance of breast cancer awareness and early detection.

That got me thinking that I really shouldn't take any chances with my health any longer.

Breast cancer was on my mind as a colleague had just returned to work after going through chemotherapy, radiotherapy and surgery, having found a lump - she was 54.

Action Cancer's breast service is free here for women my age - in their 40s - before the health service screening, which begins at 50. That was when I realised I had to stop making excuses and just go and get checked out.

Having booked an appointment, I went along to Action Cancer House in south Belfast. I didn't find the screening (process) sore, it was just slightly uncomfortable. The radiographer was lovely and I was in and out of the building in 20 minutes.

A week later, though, I received a letter indicating that the screening had detected something. My follow-up appointment was at the Ulster Hospital on December 1 and I took my mum along for support. The consultant performed a physical examination, but couldn't find anything.

Then I had to have a mammogram, ultrasound and a biopsy. As the morning wore on, other patients had gone home, but my tests continued and I became increasingly concerned that I was going to receive bad news.

And my worst fears were confirmed when I was taken into a side room and told that I had breast cancer. The tests had found a small tumour in the right breast sized about 10 or 11mm. While I was told I needed to have surgery, any further treatment could only be determined after my operation and my lymph nodes were tested. This would reveal if the cancer had spread.

Mum and I left the hospital totally shell-shocked at the news.

When I went back to work, I told my family and colleagues about my cancer diagnosis, but not my friends. Christmas was coming and I didn't want to spoil it for them, though when they eventually did find out they were annoyed at me for hiding my diagnosis.

Lots of negative thoughts went through my head - was this the last Christmas I would have with my son Alexander?

In January, I told Alexander that mummy was going in for an operation on her breast. Later on I went into his room and he had been on his iPad googling. He turned to me and said, 'Mummy, do you have breast cancer?' I found this extremely difficult and upsetting.

On January 21, I had a quadrantectomy on my right breast and my lymph nodes were tested. Thankfully, the tests came back clear, which was the best news. I did need treatment, though, so I began 15 sessions of radiotherapy at the City Hospital in Belfast in March for three weeks, after which time I would be on Tamoxifen for five years.

I took two weeks off work for the operation and recovery, but then went back to my job during the radiotherapy treatment. I had built up in my head that I would require chemotherapy, so I was relieved when I didn't have to go through with it.

After more checks and assessments, though, I can confirm that I am now cancer-free and doing well. Since my cancer diagnosis I've encouraged friends to go for screening at Action Cancer and am now an ambassador for the charity to get women in their 40s and over the age of 70 to come forward.

My message is this: Don't bury your head in the sand. Nobody wants to have breast cancer, but don't let that put you off getting screened. For the majority of people it's reassurance that everything is okay.

In Northern Ireland we are in a privileged position, having access to this service for free, so you should avail of it. Prioritise your health, if not for yourself, then for your family."

I was told I was very fortunate to have caught the cancer so early. Had I waited to be called for routine screening, it might have been too late for me. Early detection saves lives - thank you, Action Cancer, for saving mine.

‘Baz was my rock and I just don’t know what I’d have done without him’

Amanda Higginbottom (46), a systems clerk, lives with her partner Baz in Finaghy. Amanda’s breast cancer was detected on board Action Cancer’s Big Bus in Antrim in July last year. She says:

In 2012 my employer Tesco first arranged for the Big Bus to come to the Distribution Centre in Antrim, where I work. I was 42 and had never had a mammogram before. I was a little nervous stepping on board the Big Bus, but the procedure was very quick and only mildly uncomfortable. I was relieved to receive the all-clear following my first visit.

The Big Bus returned to my work again in July last year, when I was 45. I was happy to go for a second mammogram. I knew what to expect and I had no lumps or bumps and nothing to be concerned about — or so I thought. Within a few weeks, all my colleagues received letters saying that their screenings were fine, but mine said that something had been detected and I needed a follow-up examination.

Even though I was the only one at work who received a letter of this nature, I tried to stay positive. I knew that there could be many reasons why I had been forwarded on for further investigation — it wasn’t necessarily cancer — so I tried not to fear the worst, but it did play on my mind.

I brought Baz with me to the appointment at the City Hospital in Belfast. While there I had to have a series of tests and a physical examination of my right breast (where nothing could be found), more X-rays from different angles, an ultrasound and some biopsies.

Then I was diagnosed with breast cancer in the right breast — ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS) — and, in addition, cancer cells were found in the lymph nodes. I was shocked by the diagnosis — you never expect cancer to happen to you, it’s something that happens to other people.

When I broke the news to my family and my friends, I didn’t think that I was talking about me, but someone else. It was a very surreal experience.

Baz was my rock and I don’t know what I would have done without him. Whatever this diagnosis throws at me, we agreed to deal with it together.

On August 28 I had an operation to remove the DCIS, and 18 lymph nodes were taken away and tested, with two coming back as being cancerous. Unfortunately this operation did not manage to get a clear margin around the area of DCIS and as a result I had two options — to either have some more tissue around the area taken away or opt to remove the right breast completely with a mastectomy.

I chose to have a mastectomy because I felt it was the safest option as the cancer wasn’t a specific lump but scattered cells. I thought there would always be a fear that something would be lurking underneath preparing to raise its head, so I decided it was best to get it all removed.

I had a mastectomy on October 5 and was offered reconstructive surgery to take place during the same operation, but I declined. I had broken my back a few years before in a horse riding accident and I didn’t want to weaken my core any further by having muscle removed from elsewhere in the body. I also knew that reconstruction would delay any further treatment required. I wanted to face this cancer battle head-on and get through it as soon as I could.

After an appointment with my oncologist at the end of October, it was determined that I should have six sessions of chemotherapy and 15 sessions of radiotherapy. They give you every scenario of what can happen to you with the chemo, with the universal one being fatigue — in reality this was the least of my symptoms, but I think I probably experienced everything else. My initial anti-sickness medication didn’t work and I was throwing up every half hour. I also developed a heart flutter and had to go to A&E. I got a horrible taste in my mouth and felt as though I had a full body flu. I developed severe rashes on my hands and feet and my shoulder-length blonde hair came out in clumps.

Chemo takes its toll on your body and impacts you both physically and emotionally. It really was horrendous, but I had Baz by my side every step of the way, which helped me to be strong and get through it. It was a massive relief once the chemo was over. Thankfully, I found the radiotherapy much easier to deal with. It was tiring running up and down to the hospital every day for treatment, but I was grateful not to experience any of the other side-effects.

In September of this year I was told that after the treatment I was cancer-free. Now I need Herceptin injections every three weeks, the side-effects of which include joint pain and generally feeling exhausted. I do a very good impression of a 90-year-old with severe arthritis when I stand up and sit down.

Other than that, I’m getting slowly but surely back to my normal self. My mind is ahead of my body and I want to do more than I’m actually capable of and that’s what I’m struggling with at the minute. I have recently started back to work on a phased return and feel like I am beginning to get my life back.

I didn’t know before that the screening was available in Belfast and even if I had, it’s probably not something I would have bothered to do. It was the very fact that the Big Bus came to me, right to my place of work that I went for an appointment. I was 45 when my breast cancer was detected. If I had waited until I was 50, I’m convinced it would have been too late for me.

For women aged 40-49 and 70 plus, please go and get screened with Action Cancer. Don’t rely on self-checking your breasts. While this is important, mammograms detect things long before there is anything to feel.

Be proactive and book yourself a free mammogram, either on board the Big Bus when it’s next in your area or at Action Cancer House in Belfast.

If I hadn’t stepped on the Big Bus, my outcome could have been very different.

Symptoms that can spell danger

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
  • blood-stained discharge from either of your nipples
  • 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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