Martina’s message: breast checks are vital

As Martina Navratilova becomes the latest high profile figure to battle breast cancer, three local women tell Karen Ireland their very personal reasons for backing Action Cancer’s new campaign to highlight its screening programme

Amanda Stewart

Nine times Wimbledon champion Martina Navratilova freely admitted that the news she had breast cancer was her “own personal 9/11”.

The 53-year-old was particularly shocked as she had always followed an extremely healthy lifestyle.

But she admits that after she stopped asking “why me?” she realised that she had left it four years before going for a mammogram check-up.

Happily her long-term prognosis is good as doctors caught the disease early, but she says: “Another year and I could have been in big trouble.”

It’s a message that Action Cancer is keen to get across to women in Northern Ireland. It has launched a new campaign to encourage women to be breast aware and to self-refer to their GP if they notice anything unusual.

The central message of the campaign is Be Breast Aware and Self Refer. Early detection saves lives.

Action Cancer is the only charity offering breast screening here and offers more than 1,000 appointments every month to women aged 40-49 and 70-plus, the age ranges which fall outside the NHS screening programme.

Television personality Gloria Hunniford, through the Caron Keating Foundation, has gifted £75,000 to enable Action Cancer to screen women and we are asking the generous Northern Ireland public to match this figure over the four months in the lead- up to the Moon Light Walk on June 18.

Women aged 40-49 and 70+ can contact Action Cancer to arrange an appointment which can be at Action Cancer House in Belfast or on the Action Cancer Big Bus.

The Big Bus travels across Northern Ireland visiting communities and workplaces in each health board on a monthly basis.

The Belfast Telegraph has teamed up with Action Cancer to highlight the benefits of screening and early diagnosis which can save lives.

For more information contact Action Cancer — tel: 028 9080 3344

Amanda Stewart (50) lives in Newtownards with her husband Stephen. They have two boys, Johny and Keith, who are in their late 20s. She says:

I turned 50 this year and to be honest it was a milestone I wasn't sure I would ever see. I celebrated this birthday with a very special trip away with close friends and family.

As it got closer I worried more that I wouldn't make it but thankfully I did, and I did it in style.

This campaign is very close to my heart as I am such a strong advocate for all women to have themselves checked out as doing that for piece of mind saved my life and it could save yours.

Early detection is the key and Martina Navratilova in the news recently raises more awareness about the importance of this.

My journey with breast cancer began when I was almost 41 and really it all started because I met a friend at church who I hadn't seen for some time and she looked very ill.

She told me that she had breast cancer and was strongly advising the importance of all women regularly checking themselves. To be honest, this was something I had never really thought about before.

However, when I went home that night I couldn't get my friend out of my head and how ill she looked — and that prompted me to do something I hadn't done before and to check myself.

To my complete shock I immediately found a lump. I somehow managed to convince myself and my husband Stephen that it was probably just my imagination as I had actively gone looking for one.

The lump, however, didn't go away and it niggled at the back of my mind, so I finally went to see the doctor.

At the time it was a locum GP and she seemed pretty convinced it was nothing sinister and as I had had my children young and fed them myself I shouldn't really have anything to worry about. However, she wanted me referred for peace of mind.

Thankfully I have private insurance and I was able to get an appointment quickly. I had an appointment the following Monday and after a lot of routine tests I remember hearing the word ‘nasty’ — things seemed to go into a bit of a whirl but by the end of the day I was told I had an aggressive form of breast cancer.

Two days later, when I should have been preparing for a family holiday in Florida, I was instead preparing to go to theatre to have a partial mastectomy.

I can't really describe how I felt during those early days following diagnosis. I was in complete shock but because things were happening so quickly, I really didn't have time to take it all in.

I was in hospital for three days and then had five weeks of intensive radiotherapy.

I then had chemotherapy and implants and all sorts of drugs during the following five years, which was how long my treatment lasted.

During this time I also had to have my ovaries removed as a precaution as it was detected that I have a strong family history of breast and ovarian cancer.

I would love to say I am recovered now — and one day I believe I will be able to say that — but for now I am still in recovery.

Without the support of close friends and Stephen and my boys I couldn't have got through this.

I also got a tremendous amount of support from Action Cancer and the services they provide, including both complementary and counselling services.

I take each day as it comes now and slowly but surely my life is returning to some kind of normality.

I also count my blessings and thank God for every day I have and that I celebrated that special birthday this year, which I was told I would perhaps never get to see.

‘I’ve had breast cancer twice but I still intend to keep on trekking for charity’

Evelyn Annett (47) lives in Kilkeel with her husband Brian and their children Grace (23) and Mark (15). She says:

Next month I will join a group trekking in the Grand Canyon for Action Cancer. I hope I am living proof that life goes on after a breast cancer diagnosis — and I should know as I have had to come to terms with it twice.

Some people don't like talking about their experiences with cancer but I have found since my first diagnosis five years ago talking about it helps me — I always feel stronger when I face things head on.

I was diagnosed after finding what felt like a lump of hard muscle on my breast.

I was referred by my doctor for further tests and, three weeks later, I found myself having a mastectomy and reconstructive surgery together.

Following that I had radiotherapy treatment and then began my road to recovering.

Sadly, last year I found another lump in the skin in virtually the same place — I remember thinking it couldn't happen to me again but it did and, at the end of August last year, I had further surgery to remove another tumour.

Thankfully I had a full body scan which revealed the cancer hadn't spread to any other part of my body which was a huge relief.

I finished my treatment in November and I have to think that's it over with. For me coping has been about staying positive.

Yes, I have had breast cancer twice but life has to go on — I have two children Grace and Mark and a supportive husband Brian. I have to be strong for all of them and just look forward.

I have a very strong faith and believe my life is completely in God's hands. I know he has a plan for me and I trust him with it completely.

Over the last five years since my first diagnosis I have done three big treks for Action Cancer and am a tremendous supporter of the work they do.

A year after my first operation I was walking on the Great Wall of China.

I really want to do the Grand Canyon expedition this year and I have been training really hard as my aim is to raise as much funding and awareness as I possibly can. I did the seven peaks of the Mournes at the weekend — but I will swear Slieve Donard is getting higher every year.

The way I see it — life throws us all challenges each day. Some of them admittedly are bigger than others but you just have to face them head on and get on with it. That's what I did. I don't look back — just forward.

‘Fate intervened and I got a slot on the last day’

Grace McCart (50) lives in Gilford with husband Ian. They have two sons Brian (27) and Paul (29). She says:

It was a simple twist of fate which changed my life and I now strongly believe all women should take matters into their own hands and be proactive as it could save their lives.

I work as a production manager in Moy Park in Portadown. Little did I know in July last year going to work and stepping onto the Action Cancer's Big Bus would later save my life.

When the Big Bus visited my work someone told me to make sure I put my name down to go for screening.

I didn't think too much more about it and when the list of appointments came back and my name wasn't on the list I just thought, oh well I haven't got a slot.

Thankfully, fate intervened and on the last day there was a spare slot and I got an appointment which changed everything for me. When the letter came to say I needed further investigations and I was referred to the City Hospital I remember thinking I didn't have time for all of this as my son was getting married.

One of the hardest things I have ever had to do was to tell my son Paul just before his wedding that I had breast cancer. I remember going to see him in Belfast and he was watching football — when his dad and I called in to see him he knew immediately that something was seriously wrong with one of us.

It turned out the lump on my breast was a very aggressive form of cancer and I needed surgery immediately.

Thankfully I was able to attend the wedding on the Saturday and then have my surgery on the Monday.

If I am honest, I did spend the whole wedding day thinking about what lay ahead and saying goodbye to my son Paul and his new wife Natalie before they went on honeymoon to Australia was heart breaking as I really didn't know what was going to happen to me.

Thankfully, the fact that I had my surgery so quickly followed by chemotherapy and then radiotherapy meant that they were able to remove the cancer and it was treatable.

If I hadn't gone for that appointment and got that slot that day I really don't know what my outcome would have been and I will always be thankful to Action Cancer and the Big Bus.

I am a granny now — my granddaughter Harriet Grace was born just two weeks ago and she is a real blessing and something very positive which has given me a real lift and hope with something to look forward to in watching her grow up. If I hadn't got on the Big Bus that day I might not have been part of her life.

It really isn't a cliché to say early detection saves lives as I am here today because of it so I would encourage all women to be proactive and the earlier they take action the better.

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