Kate Comiskey: Screening saved my life

Kate Comiskey with her husband and sons
Inez Fowler

As Breast Cancer Awareness month continues, two Northern Ireland mums tell how screening saved their lives 0

Fighting back: Inez Fowler. Below, Kate Comiskey with her husband and sons It’s that time of the year again when women are being urged to think pink — because it could save your life. That’s the message from Northern Ireland women, who only discovered they had breast cancer after a timely visit for a check-up at Action Cancer.

One of Northern Ireland’s leading cancer charities Action Cancer is celebrating its fifth year in partnership with the province’s largest independent pharmacy chain Gordons Chemists.

Action Cancer is the only charity in the UK and Ireland that offers women aged 40-49 and 70-plus the opportunity to have a free mammogram, complementing the NHS screening programme which calls women aged 50-70.

Approximately 1,150 women are diagnosed with breast cancer here every year, while 300 die from it.

Joanna Currie, Action Cancer consultant radiographer, said: “Last year Action Cancer screened nearly 8,000 local women — a record number for the charity.

“And as our service detects six breast cancers in every 1,000 women screened, last year nearly 50 women were alerted to their cancer when it may otherwise have gone unnoticed.”

This year the Action Cancer Big Bus, sponsored by independent retail group SuperValu, will visit a select number of Gordons Chemists.

Joanne Wright, professional services manager from Gordons Chemists, adds: “Every year Gordons Chemists provides breast screening request forms in store to encourage our customers to complete the form and attend a free follow-up screening with Action Cancer.

“Over the past four years Gordons Chemist staff and customers have raised £150,000 towards Action Cancer’s vital screening services and over 2,300 women have completed the self referral forms in store. Through the money raised for the service and the number of forms filled in, approximately 25 women over the last four years will have had their cancer detected early thanks to Gordons Chemists.”

Inez Fowler (46) is a hairdresser and lives in Kircubbin with husband Davy and daughter Jennie (20). She says:

“In 2008 a good friend of mine was diagnosed with breast cancer and advised me to get a mammogram as soon as possible. As I was 43 I headed straight to Action Cancer who screen women in their forties and over 70. Thankfully the results came back clear. Two years later in May 2010 I received a letter from Action Cancer recalling me for a screening, but I got cold feet and didn’t go.

Then, early last year two people I knew were diagnosed with breast cancer in quick succession and this spurred me on to get myself checked out. In May 2011 I booked for myself and a friend to have a mammogram with Action Cancer.

The mammogram itself was fine, but as I was leaving, I just felt in my gut that something was wrong. When I got home I checked my breasts thoroughly and noticed something on my

right breast — not a lump but a certain hardness.

Two weeks later I received a letter referring me to the hospital for further tests. At that stage I just knew. My appointment was scheduled for two weeks later.

My husband, daughter and I travelled up to the Ulster Hospital in silence.

We arrived early and the waiting room was full to capacity. Over the course of the day I had a series of needle biopsies and a core biopsy. I noticed the waiting room gradually emptying throughout the day, but four hours later we were still there.

Finally my husband and I were brought into a private room and the consultant told me I had cancer. I felt like my world was tumbling down around me but it was either sink or swim. I told the consultant: ‘Let’s do it. I’m still a young woman and I’ve too many tables to dance on yet!’

Three days later I received news that the cancer was also in my lymph nodes. On June 29 I had surgery to remove the mass and the nodes and four days later I was at a party celebrating my niece’s return from New York.

I started the first of six chemotherapy sessions on August 9 and two weeks later after I’d finished my first chemotherapy I started to lose my hair so had it cut off. Hair loss wasn’t an issue for me as I accessorised with funky scarves and colourful glasses. I also tried to wear lippy and blusher — I still wanted to look well.

I started radiotherapy on December 19 with my father-in-law who was receiving treatment for prostate cancer.

For me, keeping positive helped enormously. You can’t bury your head in the sand — you ought to be proactive about your health. I was, and Action Cancer helped to save my life.”

Kate Comiskey (50) lives near Markethill with husband Patrick. She has three sons, David (22), Andrew (19) and Patrick (16). She says:

“In September last year after seeing an ad in the local paper I booked a screening appointment on the Action Cancer Big Bus when it visited my hometown. |I was curious to see what it would entail and as I was the right age — in my 40s — I thought I’d give it a go. As I had no symptoms or no lump, I wasn’t at all anxious when I received a letter from Action Cancer informing me that I’d need to be referred to a specialist breast clinic for further investigation.

I naively went along to an appointment at the Breast Clinic — alone — confident that this was just a formality. But when I came home I had to tell my husband that we could be on ‘a rocky road’.

He was unconvinced — his words were: ‘It is inconceivable that someone as healthy as you could be harbouring such cells in their body!’ It was a fair point as at the time I was training for the Dublin Marathon on October 31 and feeling really fit. I’d completed the Belfast Marathon the previous May.

In the week between the core biopsy on October 10 and the results on October 17 my training schedule was to run 50 miles over the course of the week, which I did. A week after the core biopsy, we received the diagnosis of cancer and were given a date for the operation. I was to go into hospital on October 31 for preparation for surgery the following day. The care and compassion of the doctors and nurses, not to mention the efficiency of the actions which followed the diagnosis, impressed us immensely.

After surgery I had six rounds of chemotherapy from the end of November until the end of March and then 20 days of radiotherapy. Looking back, much of it is a haze.

At home I was supported by family, friends and colleagues. I received deliveries of flowers, cards, gifts, texts, emails, fabulous food and phone calls which made me feel supported and cherished.

I didn’t run the Dublin Marathon, but there will be other marathons, I hope.

And I will be eternally grateful to the keen eyes of the two specialists who examined my mammogram taken on the Action Cancer Big Bus. The only indicators of my tumour on the mammogram were some calcifications so thank goodness they wanted to investigate it further.

Receiving a cancer diagnosis is a shocking blow. I felt let down by my body. I had, I felt, done everything in my power to defend myself from cancer through my active and healthy lifestyle. Still, I am beginning to feel that I am out the other side now and even though I still suffer from fatigue and the side effects of the drug Tamoxifen, most days I can find some sort of ‘normal’.”

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