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At 33 I thought I was too young to get breast cancer - but I was wrong

Ahead of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, Deirdre Reynolds meets a woman whose life was turned upside-down by a chance discovery -- and who knows only too well the importance of self-checking.

Mum-of-one Nicola Turley was absentmindedly applying body lotion one morning when she found the pea-sized lump that changed her life.

Just months after becoming a new mum at 33, it was cancer -- and resulted in the speedy removal of her left breast.

"My first thought was 'Oh God'," recalls Nicola, now 36, from Killenard, Co Laois. "I remember coming out of the bathroom and my husband Paul asking me if I was okay because I looked so green.

"An hour later, I was in my doctor's surgery -- and within six weeks, I'd had a mastectomy."

Breast Cancer Awareness Month starts on Saturday -- but while the national screening programme for the disease sees women aged 50-64, GPs are urging women less than half that age to check for changes.

Despite the fact that Ireland has the fourth-highest rate of breast cancer in Europe, almost 40% of women aged 18-24 here have never performed a breast check, according to a new survey by Breast Cancer Ireland and Aviva Health.

And in a bid to redress the discovery, October 20 has been labelled 'Have a Feel Day' -- with Aviva's Health Mate app and a special Facebook page reminding 20- and 30-something ladies to get to grips with the malignance meted out to 2,000 grandmums, mums and daughters across the country every year.

"The findings are in keeping with what I find in my surgery," says Dr Naoimh Kenny, who has a practice in Crumlin. "Most women only check their breasts once a year, if they do it at all -- and when they do, a lot of women are worried they're doing it wrong.

"The aim of 'Have a Feel Day' is to get women to check their breasts more regularly -- about once a month -- and demystify the process.

"In the younger age group, most women are having regular menstrual cycles and may naturally experience different breast changes throughout the month," she adds.

"So the aim is for a woman to know what 'normal' feels like for her, enabling her to bring any concerns to her GP.

"The best time to check is just after your period or, if you're not menstruating, on roughly the same date every month."

Backing up the need for a national 'Have a Feel Day', research has shown that it's random self-checks by women themselves, not screening, that uncovers more than 80% of breast cancers.

For Nicola, who runs her own marketing consultancy, accidentally discovering the tiny lump in her breast so early was, in many ways, a stroke of luck.

"To be honest, I wasn't checking myself the way I should have been," she admits. "I hadn't put on body lotion in a few days and it was only when I was rubbing it in that I felt the lump.

"Even then, I thought: 'Sure, it couldn't possibly be breast cancer, I'm too young'. To me, breast cancer was a disease for older women."

Irrespective of her age, Nicola soon found herself faced with the stark decision whether to have a lumpectomy to excise the cancer or a mastectomy to get rid of the entire breast.

And while losing a breast would be traumatic for a woman of any age, Nicola reveals that it was the far more terrifying thought of her three year-old daughter Emelie losing her mum that ultimately helped make up her mind.

"When you have a child, suddenly your sense of responsibility is heightened -- had I not had Emelie, I might have ignored the lump," she says.

"So when my consultant offered me the choice of a lumpectomy or a mastectomy, I was like: 'Whatever, I don't really care -- just get rid of the thing'.

"Women deal with it differently -- and I don't want to belittle anyone for whom it's a huge psychological battle," she adds.

"But as far as I was concerned, losing my breast was the least of my worries -- anyway, I was never precious about my boobs because they were always very small.

"During the mastectomy, I had a reconstruction that used some of my tummy tissue to rebuild the breast -- so now, no one would even know."

Another person who didn't know was little Emelie, who was just nine months old when her mum disappeared to hospital for eight days.

But it won't always be that way, says Nicola, who intends to make sure her daughter is wise to the genetic dangers of the disease when she's older.

"Emelie started walking the day I went into hospital," she remembers. "She had no idea what was going on and I didn't want my husband bringing her into the hospital in case it frightened her.

"But as soon as she's old enough, I'll tell her everything. My sister has three girls, aged 20, 19 and 16, and one has already been for a mammogram because of me.

"It's definitely made my female family members and friends more aware of checking themselves."

Now cancer-free and feeling good, Nicola reveals how discovering that tiny lump one morning three years ago has, ironically, been a springboard to a better life.

"Before I got cancer, I lived in city-centre Dublin and worked in a bank," she says. "Now I run my own business and we've moved to the country to be closer to my parents and Paul's parents -- all this stuff that we would never have done.

'If I hadn't gotten sick, I'd still be working in the bank, stuck in the rat race with a big mortgage -- so it's been amazing."

But there's still one dream she and hubby Paul are hoping to fulfil soon.

"At the time I was diagnosed, we would love to have tried for another baby," recalls Nicola. "Now that I've been given the all-clear and am off my medication, please God, it's just a waiting game.

"After surviving cancer, you have a totally different perspective on life," she adds. "It really makes you realise what's important -- and not sweat the little stuff."

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