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How we fought breast cancer... and won!

As Action Cancer launches a new campaign for Breast Cancer Awareness Month, seven local women share their life-changing experiences with Weekend magazine and reveal how they have beaten the disease

With recent figures indicating that breast cancer incidence rates for women aged 40-59 have increased by 50% in the last 30 years, Action Cancer is marking Breast Cancer Awareness Month with campaign partner Gordons Chemists by encouraging women in their 40s to come forward for a breast screening.

Action Cancer, Northern Ireland's leading local cancer charity, is the only charity that offers women in their 40s the opportunity to have a mammogram — women aged 40-49 and over 70 are eligible for Action Cancer's breast screening service, complementing the NHS screening programme, which calls women aged 50-70.

“The good news is that while cancer rates have increased, so also have survival rates,” says Joanna Currie, Action Cancer's consultant radiographer.

“This is thought to be largely due to available breast screening programmes that help to detect cancer at an earlier stage so that treatment is more likely to be successful. Women aged 40-59 are now considered the age group to be most at risk of breast cancer, and as young women's breast cancer is usually more aggressive, early detection within this age range is even more crucial.

“There are approximately 131,000 women aged 40-49 in Northern Ireland who are eligible for the charity's screening service, so we’re encouraging them to come to Action Cancer for a mammogram. We also urge those in their 50s to attend their screening appointments when called by NHS.”

Gordons Chemists will provide breast screening request forms in store for the fourth consecutive year.

Joanne Wright, professional services manager from Gordons Chemists, says: “The health of our community is at the heart of what we do and we're delighted to be able to make a direct impact on the lives of our customers through our partnership with Action Cancer.”

After a recent Action Cancer survey found that one in two women here do not feel confident when checking their breasts, the charity developed a new breast check guide.

The survey revealed that nearly seven in every 10 women checked their breasts less than the recommended once a month.

Joanna Currie adds: “The same size as a credit card, the guide fits neatly in a woman's purse so they can refer to it time and time again.”

The new breast check guides are available from Action Cancer House, Belfast, on the Big Bus mobile unit, in store at Action Cancer retail shops or at all Gordons Chemists stores. For a breast screening appointment contact Action Cancer, tel: 028 9080 3344, visit actioncancer.org or call in to your local Gordons Chemist and fill out a request form

‘We all shared the same resolve to fight it’

Joanne Bishop (46) lives in Bangor with husband Martin (47) and daughters Lauren (20) and Hollie (16). She says:

“In April 2010, encouraged by an advertisement on a local radio station and the fact that my two cousins, Lynn and Joann, were suffering with breast cancer, I made an appointment with the unit at Action Cancer House. I am very lucky that I did.

The subsequent mammogram revealed that there was a lump in my left breast. I got an appointment at the Ulster Clinic that same day and the needle biopsy confirmed that I had cancer. The immediate prognosis was that the cancer was quite advanced and a very aggressive strain.

Having never detected anything in my breast up to that point, I was devastated and the rest of the appointment was a blur. The thoughts going through my head were that I was going to die and I had so much to sort out! While I was confident that my eldest daughter Lauren was settled in university and very much together with her life, I felt robbed of being able to be part of the same process with my youngest daughter, Hollie.

When we got home that evening my husband Martin and I both broke down at the prospect of being separated by this. My daughter Lauren was visibly upset but Hollie was very withdrawn and seemed to struggle with coming to terms with the news. However, we all shared the same resolve to fight the disease. I was determined that I was going nowhere.

Two weeks after the initial diagnosis, I had surgery to remove the tumour and some lymph nodes. The 10 days waiting for the results of the biopsy were probably the longest of my life. But the results were very good. The tumour had been removed completely and there were no signs of any migration of the cancer cells to the lymph nodes. I then had five weeks of being chauffeured to and from the City Hospital by Lauren to receive my radiotherapy treatment. I am now on a course of Tamoxifen hormone treatment for the next five years. I have had my one year scan, and fortunately there are no signs of a return of the cancer.

As my recovery progressed, I felt very grateful for the help and support that Action Cancer provided. I hope that by sharing my story I can encourage other women to be breast aware and avail of Action Cancer's services if they can. Early detection saves lives — it saved mine.”

‘I tried to remain calm and in control’

Betty Terrington (78) lives in Dunmurry with husband Jim. She has three children Mark (47), Alan (44) and Jacqui (41) and is grandmother to Alana (16), Jamie (14) and Beth (11). She says:

“It all began when my daughter decided to have a breast screening with Action Cancer in 2009 and asked me to come along with her.

When she rang she discovered at 39 she was one year too young for a screening there, but went ahead and made an appointment for me.

A few days after my mammogram I received a phone call from Action Cancer referring me to the City Hospital to have another mammogram carried out. I was diagnosed with breast cancer that very day. A biopsy proved that my lump was malignant, grade three — the aggressive kind that is hormone-driven.

At this news I remained calm and in control — I’m still not quite sure how — but my daughter was distraught. Deep down I could hardly believe it was happening to me. I had no lump and no symptoms: I had expected everything to be fine.

I was admitted to hospital that same week with the operation performed the next day. I couldn’t believe it was all happening so quickly. Thankfully a lumpectomy along with the removal of two lymph glands removed my cancer.

With a lot of prayer, love and support from my family we all got through it. The staff both at Action Cancer and the Cancer Unit in the City Hospital are lovely, caring people and I would like to thank all of them for helping me through a difficult time.”

‘I’m so grateful for the support I’ve had’

Donna Watters (44) lives in Newtownabbey with husband Alan. She has a son (25) and a daughter (23). She says:

“I had been experiencing pain in my right shoulder and chest for some time and went to a physiotherapist after being referred by my GP. However, nothing took away the constant pain, which was made worse when the area was knocked or touched.

I went back to see my GP who suggested that, as I was nearing my 40th birthday, I should contact Action Cancer and get a mammogram. I made an appointment for the end of February, 2007, and in early March received a letter asking me to contact Action Cancer to make a further appointment at a breast clinic.

At my appointment in mid March I was told an 8mm mass had shown up. A biopsy later revealed that it contained cancer cells and would need to be removed. I had the lump and a number of lymph nodes removed.

The following week the doctor advised that some of the surrounding tissue, including a number of lymph nodes, looked suspicious and suggested a mastectomy of my right breast. I had it two days later. Three weeks after this I underwent a course of chemotherapy followed by five weeks of radiotherapy.

Since then, the genetics doctor suggested I also have my left breast removed. I did that in March of this year and had a double reconstruction at the same time. The last four years have been difficult and I could not have got through them without the support of my husband Alan.

Approaching Action Cancer was not something I would have thought of myself but I can’t say how grateful I am to everyone involved that I’m still here.”

‘Action Cancer’s service saved my life’

Norah Anne Bell (46) lives in Dundrod, Lisburn, with husband Richard and children Jonathan (19), Daniel (17), Peter (15) and Nicole (12). She says:

“My story is simple — the services of Action Cancer saved my life. In 2007, when I was 42, I heard an ad on a local radio station informing me that Action Cancer offered breast screening to local women in their 40s. As I had two friends with breast cancer (one who is now well and one who sadly passed away earlier this year), I strongly felt that I should go. I did and my results came back clear.

Two years later Action Cancer sent me a letter inviting me back for a screening. My sister-in-law was in the last few months of her life suffering from another type of cancer, so I knew that this was an appointment I could not ignore.

After this screening I had a mammogram and several biopsies. The results showed it was cancer. I was shocked, but also felt quite relieved that it had been diagnosed early.

A few weeks after my lovely sister-in-law died, I had a complete mastectomy with reconstruction on one side and a reduction on the other side. I tell my friends that I got a free boob job on the NHS and it looks great! Fortunately I did not require any other treatment.”

‘I didn’t stop crying when I got the news’

Roberta Hunter (78) lives in north Belfast. A widow, she has a son David (48). She says:

“In 2009 I heard a radio ad for Action Cancer's breast screening service, asking women aged 40-49 and over 70 to come forward for mammogram. It had been a while since my last mammogram so I made an appointment.

Two weeks after the screening I received a letter asking me to contact Action Cancer. They explained that I was going to be referred to the City Hospital, where I had another X-ray followed by a biopsy. Shortly afterwards I was told that I had cancer.

I was scheduled for surgery to remove cancerous cells and a lymph node on December 21. My first thought was that my son was coming home from London for Christmas and how was I going to make Christmas dinner?

I’d planned to meet my sister the day I found out and couldn't stop crying. She told me everything would be ok, but I was inconsolable. When I told my son he came straight home to be with me.

Following my surgery I was told that my cancer was one of the more aggressive types. In March, 2010, I had 20 radiotherapy sessions over a four-week period. The last week was very intense and I found it very difficult.

Slowly but surely I got stronger and have been in remission for almost two years. I’d urge any woman over 70 or in their 40s to have a mammogram at Action Cancer. If it hadn't been for this service, who knows what might have happened to me.”

‘I got help on every step of my recovery’

Meta Auden (52) lives in east Belfast with husband John and children Matthew (18) and Kirsty (10). She says:

“In 2006 I’d been back and forth to my GP about pains in my left breast. My doctor advised that I’d nothing to worry about. However, the pain continued and my husband said I had to do something. Just at that moment the Action Cancer ad appeared on TV. I rang for an appointment and was seen very quickly. And when a letter arrived a week later from Action Cancer I knew I needed further examinations.

I made an appointment to see a consultant privately who did an ultrasound and told me I’d nothing to worry about. It was the next day when he looked at the mammogram from Action Cancer he realised there was something there. I had a mastectomy within a few weeks and some time later reconstructive surgery.

I can honestly say Action Cancer saved my life and helped me every step of the way. I also availed of both their complementary therapy and counselling services, which offered me some ‘time out' and the opportunity to talk to someone who understood.”

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