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How we faced up to breast cancer in our 30s ... and won

As part of Breast Cancer Awareness month, we hear how three young Northern Ireland women successfully battled the disease.

More than 1,000 women are diagnosed with breast cancer in Northern Ireland annually and although the majority of cases affect women aged over 40, approximately 50 women in their 30s are diagnosed here every year.

As research shows cancer in younger women is particularly aggressive, over Breast Cancer Awareness Month Action Cancer is urging younger women to be breast aware.

Joanna Currie, consultant radiographer for Action Cancer, advises: “Typically younger women think that breast cancer is a disease that affects the older generation, but in fact breast cancer affects women of all ages.

“Women should get to know their breasts and become aware of the signs and symptoms of breast cancer such as a change in the size or shape of the breast or a dimpling or puckering of the skin. If a woman is concerned we would recommend she visits her GP immediately.”

Of course, early detection means a better chance of survival too, as celebrities including Kylie Minogue, diagnosed with the illness at 39, and Christina Applegate, who discovered she had the disease at 37, found out.

Here, three local women who were diagnosed with breast cancer in their 30s share their story of how they won their fights.

My life has changed so much in the past year, it’s hard to believe

Sally Heggarty (40) works as a registered childminder and lives in east Belfast with her three sons Gary (22), Adam (15) and Conor (12). She says:

One Saturday night in August last year I was getting ready for a night out. As I applied my tan I thought I felt a lump in my breast. At the age of 39 and with no family history I wasn't overly concerned.

I knew I had a smear test coming up and thought I would just enquire while there — I figured I might as well get the embarrassing stuff all over at once.

It was a few weeks' wait and every time I would check the lump was still there. I didn't do regular breast examinations so I wasn't sure if it was ‘normal' for me.

My practice nurse wasn't convinced it was serious, but my friends and family nagged until I went to the doctor.

Within days I was at the hospital for tests. By lunchtime I was given the positive diagnosis of breast cancer. I was in complete shock.

About 10 days later I was admitted for a partial mastectomy. The operation wasn't as bad as I'd first imagined. Less than two weeks later I had the pathology results. Unfortunately it was ‘triple negative' — not hormone responsive, so my treatments were a little different than usual. It was quite advanced and aggressive.

Chemotherapy started four weeks later. Although I’m a very positive person, I have to say it was really hard. After the first four of the six cycles I ended up in hospital with neutropenia sepsis (when the blood counts drop due to infection and fever). I needed rapid-response antibiotics, as it can be fatal if it remains untreated.

I soon became very low as I seemed to be hit with every side-effect possible. It was only when my first grandson was born that I got a kick up the bum and was presented with a new focus. My chemo dosage was reduced and I got through the last two cycles ok.

My 15 rounds of radiotherapy went amazingly well, with no side-effects at all. My life has changed so much in the past year, it's hard to believe. My friends and family were just awesome.

I was very open about my journey with cancer and logged it regularly on Facebook. It gave me an opportunity to keep everyone up to date and also increase awareness of the disease.

If all these people online already knew me perhaps they would realise that cancer can affect anyone — including ordinary people like me, even when you fall outside the ‘at-risk' group. Being in my 30s, a non-drinker and non-smoker with no family history it seemed unlikely but it still happened.

In May this year I threw my own 40th birthday party. It was a tribute to all my family and friends thanking them all for helping me through my journey. I'm still here and still going out on a Saturday night!

I continued with my learning course during treatment

Marieanne O’Shea (31), a care worker, lives in Ardglass with her husband Paul and two sons Jack (8) and Gavin (7). She says:

In March 2010, while working at a special needs care home, one of the residents nipped my left breast. It was sore and when I looked I noticed a lump. Being quite breast aware I was conscious of the lump and pain but put it to the back of my mind as I believed it was the original, harmless fibromatinoma lump which had been diagnosed in 2004. But by June when the pain hadn't gone away I took myself to my GP for reassurance. She agreed with me but referred me to the hospital ‘just to be safe'.

Two weeks later I met the consultant and she agreed that it was more than likely the original lump. She asked if I could come back in two weeks’ time so I could get the appropriate checks and the lump removed, regardless of the results, so that I wouldn't find myself in this situation again.

My husband, Paul, and I were happy with what we had been told so on July 8 I attended the hospital again for an ultrasound, a test I have had done twice before, but this time it was different.

As I walked through the doors of the mammogram suite I had the most awful feeling. Paul was very upbeat and told me to wait and see what they'd say, but I knew.

I had the tests and went back to see the consultant for the results. She told us there and then: “I'm so, so sorry. The tests have detected breast cancer” — words I never dreamt I’d hear in my lifetime! Our world crashed around us. I will remember poor Paul's face for the rest of my life. He was trying to be brave for me, asking questions, but neither of us really hearing the answers.

Telling our families, our young sons who were just five and six, my daddy and brothers and all my in-laws, was quite possibly the hardest thing I have ever had to do. The children didn't really understand what we were telling them, but we wanted to make them aware that things at home were going to be very different, that I needed an operation and then I would get ‘bad medicine' which would make me very ill and my hair would fall out.

My daddy, however, understood exactly what I was telling him. He had been through the whole process of cancer and chemotherapy before with my mummy a few years before.

My mummy died of cancer in May 2007 and being the eldest child in our family and the only daughter and granddaughter, my diagnosis was like a kick in the teeth for him.

I had my surgery on Monday, August 2, 2010. The operation went quite smoothly. Fortunately I had quite large breasts so they were able to perform a partial mastectomy on the left side and a cosmetic reduction on the right. I was discharged on Saturday, August 7.

Chemotherapy was arranged to begin on August 23, 2010. “Just six sessions” sounded easy, but it was so far from easy. I met the staff, had a check-up with the doctor, signed the consent forms and met the hospital hairdressers ... Suddenly I realised I was going to lose my hair, that this was really happening to me.

The first chemo was absolutely awful. No one could have warned me as to what I would feel like, how sick I would be. It was horrendous but I got through it. The next five sessions were equally as hard as the first. My hair began to fall out within a week and by the time I went for my second session I had no body hair at all.

For the boys’ sake I was determined to be finished for Christmas — I wanted it to be a normal, happy family Christmas. My last chemo was on Monday, December 13, 2010. What a day! I cried with excitement and relief. And I got my wish of a family Christmas.

Radiotherapy began on December 29, 2010. I had to attend every day for five and half weeks, finishing on February 2, 2011. That is a day I will never forget — it was the beginning of the end. The four of us — Paul, me and the boys — went out for dinner, a small celebration.

Since then I have had follow-up appointments, review appointments and two further operations to heal a wound that finally healed on July 19 this year. But the prognosis is good and I feel really well. My hair has grown back and every day I get stronger and feel more like myself.

Throughout the treatment I continued with my access course, requesting work and assignments to be emailed home to me so I could continue learning and prepare for my future. And I'm glad I did! I was presented with three awards for my efforts, including the Essential Skills Learner of the Year in Northern Ireland. I couldn't believe it! They chose me, out of everyone in the province. I was also the first woman to win it. It was a brilliant day.

I completed my final exams in August this year and received the grades I need for university access, but I have deferred my start date until September 2012, when I hope I will get a place as a midwife. In the meantime I look forward to my graduation at Queen's University in December this year.

Just this week I have returned to work — back to the place where the whole story began. So much has happened and my world has changed, but walking back through the doors was the right decision. By the end of the shift it was like I had never been away.

I was diagnosed with aggressive breast cancer when I was 19 weeks pregnant

Julie Massey (32), a school cleaner at Glastry College, lives in Ballywalter with partner Jonathan and four children Samantha (12), Dean (7), Emily (6) and Evie 14 months. She says:

My partner Jonathan thought he felt a hardness in my breast around Christmas 2009 but I put it to the back of my mind, thinking I was too young and healthy for it to be anything sinister. I felt constantly tired but as I had just found out I was pregnant, I put the tiredness down to that and the demands of looking after three other children.

Still, I kept an eye on the hardness and it didn't seem to go away — in fact, it was getting bigger, if anything, so I decided to get it checked with the doctor in case it was a blocked milk duct. The GP then referred me to the breast clinic at the Ulster Hospital.

Two weeks later I was diagnosed with grade three aggressive breast cancer. I was only 31 and 19 weeks pregnant with my fourth child. It was the biggest shock of my life.

My head was swimming with so many worries about my family, my unborn baby and, of course, myself. But I had to fight this head-on for my family and unborn baby.

As my main concern at that time was making sure my baby would not be affected by any of the treatments, I was advised by my consultant to wait until I was 23 weeks pregnant before having surgery to remove the tumour. This would give my baby a better chance of survival if I went into premature labour. It was the longest four weeks of my life, but in hindsight gave me time to get my head around everything.

I had the tumour, along with all my lymph nodes, removed on May 26, 2010. I recovered from the surgery quite quickly and my baby was fine. We had found out by this stage that we were having a girl and already she seemed to be a tough cookie!

The results of my operation showed that the tumour had been bigger than initially thought and that the margin of clear tissue was less than 1mm. I was advised to start chemo straight away and not wait until the baby was born, as was the original plan.

I was assured the baby would not be affected by the chemo as I was in my third trimester (she had fully developed and only had to grow now). After a long, hard think we decided to go ahead with chemo — eight sessions every 21 days. These began in June 2010. I had been warned that the chemo I would receive would make my hair fall out quite dramatically. I decided then that I would get it shaved at my first session.

Both my baby and I were constantly monitored and everything seemed to be going well until maternity expressed concern that the baby wasn't growing. They decided I needed to be induced four weeks early.

On Thursday August 19, 2010, after a long, hard delivery, Evie Elizabeth Conway was born at 11.28pm weighing 6lb (not so small for four weeks premature!). She was monitored for slightly longer than usual but thankfully was very healthy. We have celebrated her first birthday and she is thriving.

I recommenced chemo a week after the birth and finished my last session in November, 2010. I then started 25 sessions of radiotherapy, which finished in February. My hair is now growing back nicely.

I just had my mastectomy and reconstruction at the end of June this year. It has been a tough operation to recover from but I am getting there. Three months on I am starting to feel nearly 100% back to normal and was able to return to work in mid-October.

I would urge every woman out there, no matter what her age, to pay attention to her breasts; to be aware of how they are normally and to check themselves every month for any changes. If you do notice a change, go immediately to your GP.”

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