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Why we are in the pink: Mum and daughter on breast cancer

As Breast Cancer Awareness Month starts today, a mother and daughter who have both survived the disease urge local women to back Cancer Focus NI Girls' Night In campaign to fund vital research at Queen's University which could prove life-changing for the next generation of women. Marie Foy reports.

Chart-topping country singer Lisa McHugh is backing this year's Cancer Focus Northern Ireland Girls' Night In campaign to raise funds for pioneering breast cancer research at Queen's University, Belfast.

The charity holds its popular fundraiser during October, breast cancer awareness month, and is calling women everywhere to get involved.

Lisa, who lives in Enniskillen, says: "Cancer Focus NI does hugely important work with cancer patients and their families across Northern Ireland. The research the charity funds at QUB could make a tremendous difference to women not just here but all over the world.

"Having a Girls' Night In is an easy and fun way to make a meaningful contribution to this vital work. I'd urge everyone to pick a party theme they enjoy, put a date in the diary and invite the girls around."

Last year, women from all over Northern Ireland raised £30,000, which helped researchers at Queen's discover that there may be an alternative treatment to irreversible surgery for women with the mutated BRCA1 gene - it's these women who have an 85% risk of breast cancer and up to a 40% risk of ovarian cancer.

At present, many of these women - like Hollywood star Angelina Jolie - face the difficult decision to have surgery to remove their breasts and ovaries to avoid cancer. This research could change all that.

Cancer Focus NI community fundraising manager, Suzi McIlwain, says: "There is still so much work to be done in this field. Researchers at QUB are planning clinical trials in the near future and the money we raise through this campaign will help them do this. But we can't do it without you.

"Anyone can help by holding an afternoon tea or cocktail evening, a movie marathon, a pamper party - or whatever you and your friends enjoy doing - we just ask that they donate whatever they would spend on a night out to Cancer Focus NI instead. It's a great excuse to have a night in with the girls - and all for a brilliant cause."

The mother's story

Margaret Copeland (69) is married to Jim and has a daughter, Sharon, and two sons. She lives in Newtownhamilton She says:

I got my first diagnosis in 2000, at the age of 54. I was still working when I got a letter inviting me for breast screening. I wasn't going to go as we were very busy in work and there was no history that I'm aware of in my family, but one of my colleagues said 'go, it won't take that long'.

I didn't know what to expect but went along and when I was called for a second X-ray, no alarm bells rang - I just assumed it was all part of the usual process. Even when I had a biopsy I didn't ask any questions. I just left it all in their hands.

I was on my own when I got the biopsy results and was given the news that I had cancer. I didn't cry, I was shocked but think the nurse holding my hand was more upset. I kept thinking, this can't be right - I suppose I was in denial. As a born-again Christian I prayed that I'd be able to accept God's will for my outcome.

I decided not to phone Jim and waited until he'd finished work later that night to tell him. I did a lot of housework that evening - it was my way of coping, as if I were preparing for a wake, thinking that there was a possibility of death.

I didn't have to wait long to have a lumpectomy. The surgeon thought they had been able to get all the cancer out but had to take some of the lymph nodes, too. This was all very new to me - and, in shock, I'm not sure how much your mind is in control.

I had radiotherapy and couldn't wait to get back to work to prove to myself that I had beaten the cancer. I always enjoyed my career, but can say that the last four or five years were a real blessing because I had a whole new outlook on life and everyday problems were small when I looked at the bigger picture.

Then, in 2012, Sharon discovered she had breast cancer when she was only 30 and had a new baby to care for. That was worse than my own diagnosis to come to terms with. Parents want to protect their child and when something like this happens, circumstances are completely out of your control.

Tests revealed Sharon was a BRCA2 carrier. She had chemotherapy before having a double mastectomy. By then I'd gone back to the doctor to have a cyst on my neck checked and a mammogram was routinely carried out. It was a huge shock to be told I had developed a completely different type of cancer in my other breast.

To identify where the BRCA gene had come from, both Jim and I agreed to be tested and it was discovered that I was also a carrier. I decided to have a double mastectomy, too, as I now knew there was a risk of a re-occurrence.

I didn't go to a support group after my first diagnosis, as I thought I would be asked a lot of personal questions - I didn't feel that I wanted to air my feelings. I only went along to my first Cancer Focus NI support group two years ago to support Sharon, and I'm so glad I did.

I've met lovely women and have made good friends. There are times you feel that no one else understands and cancer can be a very lonely experience. It's comforting to be with others who know exactly what you've been through and to be reassured that life goes on.

Sometimes we share worries we don't want to bother our families with, but generally we chat about everything under the sun except cancer, but it is always a very supportive and secure place to be.

Progress has been made in understanding BRCA over the years and I'd encourage everyone to be generous and hold a Girls' Night In to help Cancer Focus NI fund more research at QUB.

My granddaughter Sophie will have to decide if she wants to be tested for the gene when she's older, so any new developments could directly benefit her.

This research is really important for the generations to come, so please help."

  • If you'd like to organise a Girls' Night In, get your party pack at, call the fundraising team on 028 9066 3281 or email

The daughter's story

Sharon Adams (33) is married to Steven. They have a daughter Sophie (3) and live in Dungannon. She says:

Sophie was born in March 2012, and everything had gone well, except for breast feeding, which hadn't been very successful.

Then in July, I found a lump but I thought it was probably a blocked milk duct. My doctor did an urgent referral to the breast clinic for a priority ultrasound scan because of my family history.

When I was told I needed a mammogram and biopsy, I think I knew deep down something was wrong - but it was still a huge shock to find out I had breast cancer.

Waiting that hour in hospital for the biopsy result was the longest of my life.

I kept thinking Sophie was only 18 weeks old and this was supposed to be the start to our new family life.

I felt numb, like it wasn't really happening to me, and it didn't really sink in until I started to tell people and treatment actually commenced.

I initially had chemotherapy to reduce the size of the tumour and, after thinking long and hard, I had a double mastectomy because of my age and family history. It was a very bold choice - but I knew it had to be done. I wanted to do whatever I could to make sure I was around to see my little girl grow up. I had reconstruction surgery at the same time as the mastectomy - this isn't always an option but I think it would've have been much more difficult psychologically otherwise.

It was only after my surgery in May 2013, that I got the results of my genetic test, which revealed that I had the BRCA mutant gene. It was around the same time that Angelina Jolie went public about her diagnosis and surgery, which really helped awareness of BRCA.

I did have my down days, but when you have a young baby you can't just bury your head in the sand - and I have wonderful family and friends around who've supported me.

There was a very real reason to get up in the morning and Sophie has helped to distract me. And it was great having extra time to spend with her while I was on sick leave.

There is a 50% chance Sophie could be a carrier but she will have to decide when she is 18 if she wants to be tested. There's no point in worrying - there are going to be so many medical advances over the next 15 years she may never have to worry, even if she is a carrier.

I first went to the Cancer Focus NI breast cancer support group in Armagh after I'd lost a friend who had gone through treatment at the same time as me and another friend had been given the bad news that she had secondary cancer.

I had finished all my treatments and the back-up of the hospital was gone.

Suddenly, you're left very much on your own and at the time I felt I needed that extra bit of support.

I think at the start the other women thought I was just there to support mum, as it's not as common to have a breast cancer diagnosis under 40. I am one of the youngest at the meetings but that does not put me off, in fact, I would encourage other younger ladies to attend. It's truly inspiring to meet ladies who are doing so well 20 or 30 years after their treatment - it gives you great hope and optimism for the future.

It's very supportive to talk to other women who've been there, too, and understand things only those with a cancer diagnosis can ever understand."

  • If you would like to hold a Girls' Night In email, visit www.cancerfocusni.or or call 028 9066 3281. Anyone who has any concerns can call the Cancer Focus NI free helpline on 0800 783 3339 and speak to a specialist nurse

Staying vigilant

The first symptom of breast cancer is usually a lump or an area of thickened tissue in the breast. Most lumps (90%) aren't cancerous but it's always best to have them checked.

See your GP if you notice:

  • a lump or area of thickened tissue in either breast
  • a change in the size or shape of one or both breasts
  • discharge from either of your nipples (which may be streaked with blood)
  • a lump or swelling in either of your armpits
  • dimpling on the skin of your breasts
  • a rash on or around your nipple
  • a change in the appearance of your nipple, such as becoming sunken
  • pain in either of your breasts or armpits not related to your period
  • For details about support visit

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