Lisburn Mum Kate Gray: I’m on a cocktail of drugs which is hopefully holding the cancer in place
Lisburn mum-of-three Kate Gray, who has metastatic breast cancer, on how Cancer Focus NI’s art therapist has helped her ... and why she’s planing a Girls’ Night In, writes Marie Foy.
Mum-of-three Kate Gray is in the throes of battling metastatic breast cancer — so breast cancer awareness month in October is especially poignant for her.
Like so many mums with this devastating disease, Kate has had to dig deep to find the strength she never knew she had in order to tackle her illness and juggle family life — and her brave upbeat attitude is an inspiration.
Kate and her family have had tremendous support from Cancer Focus Northern Ireland and now she is urging local women to hold a Girls’ Night In this October to raise much-needed cash for its breast cancer research at Queen’s University, Belfast.
“The charity has been a complete lifeline for us all,” she says. “The fact that it funds potentially life-saving research means a lot to me as new developments could mean earlier diagnosis, better treatment outcomes for other women and life-extending treatments for women in my situation.”
The 38-year-old Lisburn singing teacher (Kate Pielou LLCM ALCM), who also owns the Phoenix Arts Belfast drama school, started her own cancer journey in July 2017.
“I went to my GP after finding a lump in my breast. I had been quite vigilant about any changes as I’d had sepsis and mastitis before when I was nursing and I wanted to avoid that again.
“There was a waiting time of five to seven weeks at hospital. But I noticed the lump growing really, really fast, which scared the life out of us. Thankfully, my husband David had health cover with his work so I was able to get a diagnosis privately.
“I attended the Ulster Independent Clinic for a mammogram, ultrasound and a biopsy and was absolutely floored to be told the same day that I had cancer. I had hoped it would be blocked glands or cysts. I was devastated and worried for my young family. The youngest had only stopped breast feeding earlier that year,” says Kate, who is mum to Emily (10), Connie (7) and Megan (4).
“I had a week of MRI and CT scans and blood work before I was given my final diagnosis. I had secondary metastatic breast cancer with lesions on the bone, as well as primary breast cancer. It was serious. I had surgery on August 24 last year when I had a single mastectomy and node clearance.”
Earlier in March, before noticing the lump on her breast, Kate also noticed lumps in her armpit.
“I thought it was a swollen gland, I hadn’t realised at the time that this was a possible early indicator of cancer. I don’t know if it would have made any difference if I had gone to the doctor sooner but I’d like to alert other women to keep an eye on this area too when they are checking themselves.”
She says: “After coming round from the surgery I started hormone therapy. I had surgery within two weeks of diagnosis — not much time to let it all sink in, I had a lot to deal with. I stopped work until Christmas, so that I could find my way through it all. Music and performing arts has been at the centre of my whole working life and it was a crushing decision to make, but I also had problems with my back and couldn’t walk without sticks. Work wasn’t an option.
“Luckily David was able to take a few months off work to look after me and the children. He took on everything, I would be completely lost without him. My family were fantastic helping at home, and our neighbouring school friends gave transport to school — I’m so grateful to everyone who rallied around,” she says.
“I had four months of hormone treatment but in January I got the news that it hadn’t worked and lesions had appeared on my liver as well, with a few extra ones on my bones.
“I was shattered. There was huge emotional fall-out. I’d been planning my triumphant return to work, and I really felt adrift not doing what I love, teaching singing and drama.”
In January this year, Kate started chemotherapy and was able to go back to work part-time. However, her March review showed that this treatment was unsuccessful, too.
“That was a terrible disappointment and very tough to hear,” Kate says.
“I had to change to different chemo drugs and start Herceptin and, at last, I started to see some positive results. I’m feeling much better, more like my old self, and the cancer is vaguely under control. I’ve finished chemo and am on a cocktail of other drugs which is hopefully holding the cancer in place.
“I’ve been seeing the Cancer Focus NI art therapist Joanne Boal since October and she’s been absolutely brilliant. This therapy really appealed to me as I’m an artistic person, it’s so relaxing to have time out and I fell in love with it. I love crocheting and knitting, so it all fits together very well.
“Every week I try something different. I’ve done a lot with paint and ink. One week it was clay — thumping that clay was a big release for all the tension that was building up inside me. Joanne has also given me valuable coping strategies for all the things I am trying to figure out.
“Another time, David arranged for me and my daughters to go to a Strictly Come Dancing show, and afterward I did a painting of me and David in Strictly outfits. That was great fun, it really helps take your mind off more serious things for a time.”
Kate adds: “Once I got to grips with everything, I started finding the fun again. When I found out my hair would go, I dyed it mad colours. I felt if my hair was ridiculous before it fell out, it would be less traumatic for both myself and the kids.
“Now I pride myself on constantly trying to find the fun and be a silly billy as often as possible. It definitely helps when the paranoia and fear of the future descends.”
Cancer Focus NI family support workers have also seen the children. Connie, in particular, was struggling at school.
“The service has been a big lifeline for her and has helped her from imploding,” Kate says. “It was very difficult for us, as parents, to explain to the children what was going on in a way they could understand.
“They are very young, and the family support workers helped us with that.
“My mum has used the charity’s counselling service as she was having difficulties, too — my diagnosis was only one of a number of traumatic events in her life, so she really valued having someone to express her anxieties and feelings to.
“And I have also used the Cancer Focus NI bra-fitting service, which is for women who’ve gone through breast surgery.”
To express their thanks to the charity, David has held a head and beard shave fundraiser at his work and Kate is offering five half-price tuition courses at her drama school to other children using the charity’s family support service. Families can enquire about the drama places through the family support service at Cancer Focus NI.
Kate is also urging women to take part in the Girls’ Night In fundraiser to help raise funds for research into breast cancer.
Anyone who would like a party pack for their own Girls’ Night In or for more information, please call 028 9066 3281, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.cancerfocusni.org.
Anyone who has any concerns about cancer can call the Cancer Focus NI information and support NurseLine on 0800 783 3339 and speak to the specialist cancer nurse
The key signs and symptoms to look out for
Around 1,300 women in Northern Ireland are diagnosed with breast cancer every year — approximately 80% of these are over the age of 50. But it can happen to both younger women and a small number of men. Two thirds of breast cancers are discovered by women themselves. Knowing your breasts — what is normal for you — and being aware of the key signs and symptoms of breast cancer is vital for early detection.
If you have a monthly period it is best to check your breasts a week after your period. Some women find that before and during their period, their breasts can be sore, tender or feel slightly lumpy which may cause unnecessary worry.
If you have a breast concern, don’t delay — make an appointment to talk it over with your doctor as soon as possible. If you need to have some tests, he/she can refer you to a breast clinic for the right type of help.
Of the 1,300 women diagnosed with breast cancer each year in Northern Ireland, almost a third are picked up through the breast screening service.
A screening mammogram is an X-ray of your breast taken from two different angles. The screening is carried out by a female radiographer and will last no longer than five minutes.
All women between 50 and 70 are invited every three years for free breast screening. If you are over 70 you won’t receive a postal reminder but it is important to continue to make appointments with your local screening centre.
You do not need to have any symptoms to use this service. Remember it is important to be breast aware in between your appointments.