Why I had my breasts removed, just like Angelina Jolie

Comber girl Christine Garrett was only 27 when she was diagnosed with breast cancer and this year opted to have a double mastectomy. She tells her story to highlight new research facilities in Belfast funded by Cancer Focus NI

Breast cancer survivor Christine Garret
Breast cancer survivor Christine Garret
Angelina Jolie had a pre-emptive double mastectomy after tests revealed she carried the 'faulty' BRCA1 gene and had an 87% per cent chance of contracting breast cancer
Angelina Jolie had a pre-emptive double mastectomy after tests revealed she carried the 'faulty' BRCA1 gene and had an 87% per cent chance of contracting breast cancer
Christine Garret is backing research being carried out by Dr Kienan Savage in a new Queen's University clinic

Cancer Focus, the new name for the Ulster Cancer Foundation, is funding a research fellowship at Queen's University, Belfast which is focusing on the prevention and treatment of breast cancer.

Roisin Foster, Cancer Focus chief executive, says: "Research is an extremely important element of what we do.

"Each year we invest between £300,000 and £400,000 in research to help identify the causes of cancer and discover improved methods of diagnosis and treatment. Many cancers, previously thought to be incurable, are now being treated successfully as a result of scientific research.

"The research Cancer Focus is funding has the potential to make an enormous difference to the lives of many women but we can't do it without you. We're asking women across the country to show their support by hosting 'A Girls' Night In' for a few friends to raise money for our research work. You can organise a pink-themed afternoon tea, a movie marathon, a pamper party – whatever you and your friends enjoy doing – and ask for a donation to Cancer Focus. It's a great reason to have a good time with the girls!"

We talk to one young woman who has come through treatment for breast cancer, including a double mastectomy and reconstruction and who has had follow-up counselling with Cancer Focus.

Angelina Jolie had the same pre-emptive double mastectomy earlier this year after tests revealed she carried the 'faulty' BRCA1 gene and had an 87% per cent chance of contracting breast cancer. The mother-of-six later said she had both breasts removed to reduce her chances of dying of cancer like her mother Marcheline Bertrand, who died at the age of 56 from ovarian cancer in 2007.

Christine Garrett

Christine (29) lives at Lisbane, Comber and was diagnosed with breast cancer in May 2011

It was just as she had finished a 12-hour shift as a nursing auxiliary at the Belfast City Hospital intensive care unit that Christine felt a small lump in her right breast.

She says: "When I got home I mentioned it to my mum. She checked me and agreed that she could feel something too and advised me to call my GP for an appointment.

"A few days later I was examined by my GP. Due to my young age she didn't really consider cancer initially, but when I expressed concern about a family history (my mother had ovarian cancer and my gran had breast cancer), she referred me to the Ulster Hospital.

"I was absolutely amazed at the service I received at the Breast Clinic. I had a mammogram and a biopsy in the morning and was told I'd receive the results that same afternoon.

"In between times I called my mum, read a few magazines and tried to relax."

Initially Christine took it all in her stride, never imagining that anything serious was wrong, even when she was the last one to be seen and she was summoned to meet the consultant.

She recalls: "When the consultant entered the room it was the look on his face that told me something was wrong. 'I hate to tell you this but you have breast cancer,' he said. I just didn't believe him. One minute I was shouting at him, the next I had crumbled. I just couldn't take it in. I kept thinking about how I was going to tell my mum.

"I picked up the phone to call her. When she answered I just blurted out, "Mum, I have cancer," I heard a cry and handed the phone to the nurse to explain. I just couldn't do it." On her way home she telephoned her minister – as much to help her mum and dad as herself. "I just wanted them to get the support that they would need.

"When I arrived home my brothers and their wives were there. Obviously they were very concerned, but I told everyone to go back to work and not to worry about me.

"I kept telling everyone that I'd be fine. The gravity of my situation had still not sunk in. Our minister and our deaconess then arrived down to see us and to talk us through the issue. It was only in June when I went in for my lumpectomy that I think it finally hit home. I then went through six courses of chemotherapy and 15 courses of radiotherapy.

"I found the treatment tough going, tougher than I'd thought, but I had the help and support of my family and friends and one friend in particular who had gone through exactly the same thing. Their support was immeasurable."

Through all her treatment she continued to take her Boys Brigade group and took to wearing a wig when her hair fell out.

She says: "The boys only became aware of my illness at a BB Church parade, when the President of the Battalion asked everyone to remember me in their prayers. The boys that I led then asked one of the other leaders what was wrong with me.

"When the other leader told me about their interest, I decided to tell them that I hadn't been well and that the medicine I was taking to help me get better made my hair fall out.

"One of the first comments was 'Can I see you without hair?' They all thought I looked cool. The boys and the other leaders really helped to keep my spirits up."

But more treatment was to follow. She says: "Because of the family history of cancer I was offered the genetic testing and decided to have it done. It came back positive for the BRCA2 gene – which meant that I had an increased risk. I was a bit shocked but deep down I think I had suspected it.

"I spoke with my consultant and he discussed the option of a mastectomy and reconstruction. When I heard the statistics I knew I didn't have a choice. I wanted a double mastectomy. My choice was to stay around for a long time. I had nieces and nephews I planned to see grow up!

"On June 3 I had both of my breasts removed and temporary spacers inserted. I've had my breast reconstruction this month. I feel like a weight has been lifted off my shoulders.

"Now I know that cancer can't come back to my breasts. It's the most amazing feeling for me. My mastectomy and reconstruction operations are minor in comparison to the potentially deadly consequences of the disease.

"The whole process has taken it out of me. Some days I feel low and others I realise that I'm alive and that I beat it.

"I had a lot of help and support throughout my treatment and I now attend counselling at Cancer Focus Northern Ireland, which has helped me enormously.

"My counsellor Barbara has helped get me out of my shell again. There's still work to do but I'm slowly getting back to the old Christine."

Tracking down the anticancer genes

  • Researcher Dr Kienan Savage (below) has been appointed as Research Fellow for Cancer Focus and leads the research team at Queen's University. Dr Savage has recently identified a number of new cancer genes that appear to be involved in the development of breast and ovarian cancers, and some forms of leukemia.
  • He says: "These cancers often arise due to damage to genes within our DNA, known as 'gatekeeper' genes. The genes control how often cells divide, allowing cells to grow out of control forming a tumour."
  • The new cancer genes which have been discovered appear to play a role in repairing damage to DNA and thereby aid the repair of damaged 'gatekeeper' genes, helping to prevent cancer.
  • "My research will add significantly to our understanding of how these genes work to prevent the development of cancer. It may also lead to the development of new, quick and effective tests to help decide which treatments specific cancer patients will benefit from, and may help to identify new proteins that could be targeted for future therapies," he says.
  • "It's fantastic to get this opportunity to develop my own independent research which has the potential to be hugely significant for cancer patients – patients just like Christine."

 

To find out more information about the Girls' Night In or to request your fundraising pack contact the Pink Party Gals at Cancer Focus on 02890 663281, email fundraising@cancerfocusni.org or go to www.cancerfocusni

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