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Stepping out for Action Cancer: Women who owe their lives to charity

Three women tell Stephanie Bell why they are doing their bit for Action Cancer - after it helped them take on and beat the disease

Ashley Hurst from Ballyclare at home with her daughters Keely and Tegan
Ashley Hurst from Ballyclare at home with her daughters Keely and Tegan
Susan Craig with her family, including mum Margaret
Ashley Hurst
Suzi Waterworth, who will be taking part in the Action Cancer walk

Belfast is preparing to turn pink tonight as Action Cancer's annual Bra Walk returns to the city centre. Around 1,000 men, women and children will create a sea of pink feathers, sequins and bras as they leave the City Hall for the annual 10km walk.

The event, now in its fifth year and once again sponsored by SuperValu, raises funds for the charity's life-saving breast screening service.

Every year the charity aims to screen 10,000 women at Action Cancer House and on board the Big Bus, supported by SuperValu and its independent retailers.

Three women who were lucky to have the disease picked up early as a result of being screened at the charity's service reveal why they are happy to support The Bra Walk.

It was only this time last year that Bangor grandmother and mum-of-two Susan Craig was coming to terms with the shock of a breast cancer diagnosis.

Susan (53) had attended a mobile breast screening unit at Ards Hospital for a routine mammogram last January not thinking for one moment that anything was wrong.

Just two weeks later she was told the devastating news that she had lobular breast cancer and on St Valentine's Day last year underwent surgery to remove a large lemon-sized tumour and lymph nodes from her right breast.

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Susan, who runs her own hairdressing salon Hair 4 U in her home town, has been a keen supporter of a range of breast cancer charities including Action Cancer.

She took part in The Moonlight Walk in 2012 and is back to support the local charity again by joining the Bra Walk.

Susan lives in Bangor with her husband Samuel (53), a builder, and they have two grown-up children, Meggan (31) and Adam (28), and two grandsons, Luis (7) and Teddy, who is six months.

Still trying to come to terms with the trauma of the past year she recalls how her diagnosis came about.

"I'd been for a mammogram in January 2018," she says. "This was just a routine appointment so I wasn't expecting the outcome to be what it actually was.

"Very quickly after the initial appointment, I received a letter asking me to attend the breast screening service at Linenhall Street, where I had another mammogram and they explained that they had detected something on my right breast.

"In order to determine exactly what this was, sinister or otherwise, they explained that it was now necessary for them to perform a biopsy."

Susan returned to the clinic the following week and was horrified to be told she had lobular breast cancer which grows inwardly behind the nipple.

Lobular cancer begins in the milk-producing glands of the breast and has the potential to spread to the lymph nodes.

Susan says: "It was on Valentine's Day when I had my surgery and they removed a 4.5cm tumour. Luckily, when they removed some of my lymph nodes, they were clear."

A few weeks later she had to return to the Ulster Hospital to undergo further surgery to remove more of the outer cells to ensure all of the cancer had been taken out.

She was relieved to be told she didn't need chemotherapy and instead had 18 sessions of radiotherapy. She has also been given Tamoxifen, a hormonal therapy drug used to treat breast cancer.

Susan adds: "I cannot thank the medical professionals who treated and took care of me enough, they were absolutely wonderful. The support of my husband and family also helped me enormously

"It seems a long time ago since January 2018, but I am delighted to say that at my most recent mammogram I was given the all-clear and now I am back working at my salon in Bangor.

"Having been through this and now being cancer-free I cannot stress how important it is to get checked out.

"My appointment was a routine one and I didn't expect what happened to happen to me.

"It was devastating and I still get emotional about it. I sort of think 'why me', but it has to be someone.

"With cancer you just do not know when, where and if it will strike, but I was lucky enough to have it detected when I did."

Management consultant Ashley Hurst says she owes her life to the Action Cancer breast screening service. Ashley (44), who lives in Ballyclare with her two daughters Keely (18) and Tegan (15), was 41 when she noticed an Action Cancer billboard in Belfast encouraging women in their 40s and over the age of 70 to book a free breast screening.

"I went straight home and booked the appointment online just for peace of mind," she recalls. "I never thought there would be anything wrong as I was healthy, had no symptoms or any family history. My appointment was over in 20 minutes and off I went on a trip to Liverpool to visit family. I didn't give it a second thought."

She was stunned when just a week later a letter arrived from Action Cancer informing her that she had been referred for another examination. Too worried to wait, she decided to make a private appointment.

"I was shocked, I'm a panicker and I phoned Action Cancer immediately," she says. "They told me the referral appointment would take about two weeks but I couldn't wait that long so I made a private appointment.

"I had some more X-rays and was referred on to the City Hospital for a core biopsy.

"I was diagnosed with breast cancer on November 23, 2017. I brought my friend along as she is a solicitor and very sensible and I wanted her to write everything down, but she got very upset and started to cry.

"The doctor told me that the cancer was a line of cells and would require me to have a mastectomy and chemotherapy. I felt the blood drain from me and I felt numb, I just thought this can't be happening to me."

Ashley then faced the dilemma of how to break the news to her daughters, who were 15 and 13 at the time.

The girls didn't know that their mum had been for tests and as Keely was doing her GCSEs, Ashley was concerned about how it would impact on her.

She says: "I looked up advice online which said it was best to tell the truth and not to sugar coat it. I took them shopping and we had a nice day out together and then I sat them down - they thought they were in trouble!

"They both got very upset, the eldest went quiet and the youngest had lots of questions. One thing they didn't ask me, but I could tell they were thinking about was, 'Are you going to be alright are you going to die?' I just did my best to reassure them."

Ashley underwent surgery on December 2 and tried to make the most of Christmas with her girls before chemotherapy started in January.

She had six sessions every three weeks until April during which the biggest trauma was the loss of her hair.

"For the first few days of each cycle I was very tired and weak," she says. "I would just be starting to feel better and it would be time to start the next cycle.

"The worst bit of chemo was losing my hair. I had it cut short first and then when it started to fall out, I got it shaved.

"I had my wig ready from before Christmas, the girls had helped me pick it out. It was like a better version of my own hair and people would compliment me on it without realising it was a wig."

Ashley also had to have herceptin injections every three weeks for a year. Now having fully recovered she feels indebted to Action Cancer and after finishing her chemotherapy in 2017 she welcomed the chance to support the Bra Walk with her mum and daughters, raising £3,000.

She adds: "I'm delighted to say that I am now cancer-free. The Action Cancer screening service detected my breast cancer and saved my life.

"I wanted to give something back to this amazing charity and raise funds for other women to be screened. If you are a woman aged 40-49 or 70-plus please make an appointment with Action Cancer today - it could save your life just like it did mine."

Suzi Waterworth (50) and husband Desi (51) made some radical changes to their lives following Suzi's breast cancer diagnosis in June 2017.

Now an ambassador for Action Cancer, Suzi attended screenings with her mum at Action Cancer House since she was 40.

Her cancer was detected during a routine visit when she was 48 and the diagnosis made her re-examine how she was living her life.

Just three weeks after surgery, she and Desi married in a secret ceremony with just two friends as witnesses. They both also retired from their jobs.

Suzi says: "Desi and I had been together over 20 years and although we had no plans to get married we probably would have got round to it someday. The cancer diagnosis 100% prompted us to get married.

"We didn't even tell our families and I didn't want the big dress, hair and make-up so we rode to the registry office on our motorbikes and got married in our bike gear.

"We also both decided to retire early. When something like this happens you become determined to enjoy life."

Suzi had been a regular attender at the Action Cancer screening service and it was during her fourth visit in June 2017 that her cancer was detected.

She says: "Each time I got the all-clear, so I wasn't nervous ahead of my fourth screening. I had a family history of breast cancer with both my grandmother and aunt both having had the disease so I was always active about being screened.

"Soon after my appointment I received a letter from Action Cancer saying I needed further investigation.

"I was referred to the City Hospital breast clinic where I had a core needle biopsy, mammogram and ultrasound and told to come back a week later for the results. My husband and friend both offered to come along with me but I said no.

"I had a gut feeling that I would be told I had breast cancer due to my family history. I expected to be told I would need a lumpectomy and radiotherapy as this was my aunt's experience and she was doing well.

"At the appointment it was confirmed that I did have breast cancer and it was not possible to have a lumpectomy due to the location in the right breast. I would have to have a mastectomy. I wasn't prepared for this and immediately regretted not bringing my husband. I cried a lot which is unusual for me as I'm not a crier. He has come to every appointment ever since."

In July 2017, Suzi underwent surgery when she had her breast removed and reconstruction in one operation, as well as three lymph nodes removed.

Just three weeks later she married Desi.

Relieved to be given the all clear she was also delighted that she didn't require any further treatment apart from Tamoxifen.

She adds: "I was so glad that I had attended Action Cancer for screening meaning that the cancer had been detected early.

"I have to take Tamoxifen for five years and have suffered early menopausal symptoms as a result.

"I have become an Action Cancer ambassador spreading the word on the free screening service encouraging women in their 40s to book appointments.

"It doesn't bear thinking about how my cancer would have progressed if I had waited another two years to be called by the NHS.

"I am taking part in The Bra Walk with a group of friends so the charity can save the lives of more women just like me."

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