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Bra-vo! Our extra special reasons for raising money for breast cancer screening

 

Ahead of Action Cancer's The Bra Walk this Friday, three Northern Ireland women tell Judith Cole why they are proof that making an appointment for a check-up could save your life.

Belfast will turn pink this Friday as an estimated 1,000 people hit the streets for Action Cancer's 10k Bra Walk in aid of the charity's life-saving breast screening service.

Now in its fourth year, the fun-filled family event, which sees participants customise their bras with sequins, feathers and, well, anything else they can find, starts at Belfast City Hall at 7pm and winds its way through the streets.

And with just days to go Action Cancer is issuing a last-minute call for anyone who still wants to sign up for the walk, which is sponsored by SuperValu.

By lending support to The Bra Walk, you can not only help raise awareness of the charity's live-saving service - but also, if you wish, walk in memory of a loved one or to support someone going through breast cancer.

To date, Action Cancer's flagship event has raised £213,000.

All participants are encouraged to raise a minimum of £80 in sponsorship, the amount it costs Action Cancer to provide digital breast screening for one women aged 40-49 and 70-plus.

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

For every 1,000 women screened, an average of five or six breast cancers are detected - hopefully at an early and treatable stage.

Amy Reynolds, Action Cancer corporate fundraising executive, said: "We are delighted to have SuperValu sponsor The Bra Walk for the fourth year running and would encourage families, friends and work colleagues from across Northern Ireland to get involved in this fun event. SuperValu has been supporting Action Cancer's Big Bus since it first went on the road almost 12 years ago, enabling the charity to screen an incredible 5,400 women per year throughout Northern Ireland."

Here, we hear some of the stories of those who have benefited from the service.

People can register online at www.actioncancer.org this will be open until 4pm on Thursday. After that people can register at City Hall from 6pm.

‘I decided to face it head-on and be positive’

Single mum Sandra McCarry (48) lives in Derriaghy, just outside Lisburn, with her two sons, aged 16 and 19. An Action Cancer Ambassador, her job in the health service meant that she was aware of Action Cancer's screening programme for women in their 40s and aged 70-plus.

"As soon as I turned 40, I phoned and booked an appointment. It was easy and convenient - I had a 9am slot at Action Cancer House and was back on the road to work by 9.15am. I didn't find the mammogram painful just slightly uncomfortable for a few moments," says Sandra.

Following her first mammogram, Sandra received a letter to say her results were clear. Two years later she received a reminder letter to attend for her second screening on March 24, 2013. This time she received a follow-up letter stating further investigation was required.

"I was surprised but I didn't feel overly worried," she says. "Lots of women are referred on for further investigation and for the majority it doesn't mean cancer. I tried to stay positive."

Sandra attended the breast cancer clinic at the Belfast City Hospital on April 22. "I took my mum with me," explains Sandra. "It was her birthday, but we didn't come away with the good news we'd hoped for."

Sandra was shown the Action Cancer X-ray of the left breast. "It just looked so small, like a white round circle," she says. "It did look quite deep though."

That day Sandra had another mammogram and a biopsy and was then told by the consultant that it was breast cancer and there was evidence it had spread to the lymph nodes.

"You get a lot of information but all I could take in was my diagnosis," she recalls. "I was shocked and couldn't believe it."

Sandra asked the consultant to break the news to her mum as she couldn't do it, but says now: "We were both remarkably calm. You just have to deal with it."

It was suspected that the tumour was 2cm and that surgery and a lumpectomy were needed. The lymph node spread could only be determined once the op had taken place.

Sandra had surgery on May 3 and all her lymph nodes were removed. She spent five days in hospital. "I was very pleased with the outcome; once the swelling went down you couldn't really notice any difference," she says.

Of the 27 lymph nodes removed, only two were cancerous. Sandra's six cycles of chemotherapy began on June 27 and ran until October 15.

"The chemo was tough. The first week of each round I felt sick, but the next two weeks I felt relatively normal. The last three cycles were horrible. I developed mouth ulcers and my hair and nails fell out. I said to myself 'Just make the most of the times you feel well'."

Before cancer Sandra loved her long hair but she decided to have it cut after surgery and before chemo.

"I had a haircut party with my friends. I'm glad I got it cut because I really liked the style. When it started to fall out, I'd had time to process it," she says.

Indeed, when Sandra began to completely lose her hair, her neighbour came over the night before the second chemo treatment and shaved it. "We had great craic that night," she says. She Facetimed her sons, who were away with their father, so they wouldn't get a shock when they came home. She kept her eyebrows and eyelashes until the fifth round of chemo and says that having no eyelashes was harder than losing her hair.

"I wore a lot of make-up to deal with the changes in my appearance though I only wore wigs when socialising. I continued to live my life during treatment, I decided to face it head-on and be positive," she says.

During November, Sandra had radiotherapy. Her skin took 10 days to heal but she didn't feel fatigued. Then, in February 2014, she went to Canada for two weeks to visit family before returning to work on a phased basis. "It was a good time to get myself together and reflect."

At the start of May 2014, Sandra had her first mammogram since diagnosis. Thankfully, no worrying features were detected. She is now on Tamoxifen for 10 years and visits the oncologist and surgeon every year.

She now feels life is going back to normal.

"I feel calmer. Things that would have made me anxious and stressed don't do so anymore. I don't really care what people think of me. I'm more concerned about doing things that suit me."

Following treatment Sandra experienced lymphodema in her left arm as a result of having all her lymph nodes removed. This caused swelling and discomfort but the complementary therapy service at Action Cancer helped her manage the symptoms.

She adds: "It's difficult for sons to watch their mum go through this, but I have fantastic support. I cannot say how amazing my family and friends are. My mum, dad and sister were all superstars. My social circle came into their own - they were brilliant.

"I'd like to encourage other women to ring up and make an appointment. It could be the difference between living and dying. It would have been a long time before I noticed anything because of where the lump was in my breast. It would have been very big by that stage and I'm convinced it could have been a very different outcome for me if not for Action Cancer.

"I hope as many people as possible put their best foot forward this Friday. All money raised will support local women just like me."

‘We’re supporting the next fighters’

Jaki Jones (45), an art technician in Strangford Integrated College, has two sons Thomas (17) and Daniel (16). She found a lump in her breast while lying in bed on St Patrick's Day weekend in 2012 and immediately went to get tested.

" They found three affected areas," she says. "I was shocked to receive a breast cancer diagnosis as I was only 39 with no family history and had breastfed both sons. On April 29, 2012, I had a mastectomy and my lymph nodes removed. I went back to work three weeks after my surgery; it was a busy time in school and there was so much to do so I just powered on. My chemotherapy began in June which coincided nicely with the end of term."

Now clear of cancer for five years, Jaki still takes Tamoxifen and has annual mammograms. She is taking part in The Bra Walk with 12 others from her school. She says: "We are calling ourselves 'The Strangford Tea Cups'. We have 700 pupils and there have been so many families affected by cancer. Just 12 months after my diagnosis, two other staff members unfortunately died following their own cancer diagnosis and we currently have had another two staff members undergoing treatment for breast cancer.

"Cancer makes no exceptions for age or lifestyle, which is clear from the staff who have been impacted by it at our school. Sometimes it feels like we have been disastrously targeted by it. Those of us still here are trying to raise funds to help the next fighters.

"The fantastic work Action Cancer does in supporting people with cancer and in detecting cancers early through it's breast screening service is a cause worthy of our staff team dedicating fundraising support to."

‘Go as soon as you’re invited ... it could save your life’

Lynn Baird (52) lives in Carrickfergus with husband Ian and daughter Elin (16). Seven years ago, she attended Action Cancer's Big Bus for a mammogram and received the all-clear. Once she turned 50 she was called for a routine breast screening through the NHS.

"I received the letter in April 2017 and went to the screening bus when it came to Whiteabbey. Following my appointment, I was diagnosed with Stage O cancer. I had a full mastectomy on June 1, which coincided perfectly with the first day of my daughter's GCSE exams! I elected to have reconstruction too," she says.

Unfortunately, despite all seeming to have gone well, after 10 days Lynn developed a severe infection due to the host area rejecting what she refers to as "the new boob". She explains: "I had to go back to surgery to have it removed. I had excellent care from all at Antrim Hospital, from the breast care nurses (in particular, Cheryl), the surgeon, Mr McFall, and all the nurses and staff on C2 ward. Nor can I forget Kevin, the physio who put me through my paces for the 19 days I was there.

"I was so fortunate that I did not have to have chemo or radiotherapy, nor do I have to take medication. I was told that the breast cancer would not have been picked up had I not taken up my invitation to have a mammogram.

"I was fortunate, too, that my diagnosis was early and I can only urge other women to go as soon as they are invited for their routine screening. Early detection saves lives. I will be going for my annual scan soon and am hoping that I will be cancer free in my remaining 'boob'."

Lynn will take part in The Bra Walk on Friday with her daughter and a group of friends.

"We want to raise money so that Action Cancer can continue to provide their early detection services. I was shocked at the number of young women in the waiting room each time I attended my appointment. It is important to take the time to book yourself an appointment. It could save your life," she adds.

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