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How a chance visit to breast cancer screening service saved Co Antrim mother's life

Juliet McFarland was a fit and seemingly healthy mother of two when an impromptu examination on Action Cancer's Big Bus revealed she had breast cancer. Now, the Ballymoney woman tells Leona O'Neill why she believes that it saved her life

A Ballymoney mum who was diagnosed with breast cancer after a chance visit to a mobile breast screening service says Action Cancer’s Big Bus saved her life.

Forty-seven-year-old Omagh native Juliet McFarland — wife to Eamon and mum to Erin (10) and Callum (8)  — says she had no lump, no sickness and no inkling that she had cancer in April 2016.

Having a breast examination had always been on her to-do list and when the Big Bus rolled into SuperValu’s Ballymoney store, she paid them an impromptu visit. She did not know it would change her life.

“Having a breast exam was on my tick list, so when the Big Bus visited SuperValu Ballymoney, I decided I would go,” she says.

“I very naively thought you didn’t need an appointment, that maybe you just turned up and they saw you. But the girls kindly explained to me that I had to go online and pick an appointment.

“However, as I was heading back to my car, one of the Big Bus team ran after me and said the lady booked for 10.30am hadn’t turned up and asked me if I wanted to take her place. I can still hear myself saying, ‘Yes, thank you very much’, but secretly I was wondering to myself if this was meant to be, if it meant something. But I put that thought to the back of my mind.

“Looking back, I often wonder what would have happened if that lady had kept her appointment? My story could have been so different.

“I went in and I had the mammogram. It was painless. It was actually more uncomfortable trying to get out of my sports bra. But I had it done and went on my way, as planned, to meet the girls for coffee.”

Juliet didn’t know it at the time, but the Action Cancer Big Bus staff had discovered a lump in her breast.

“The nurses told me they would send a letter to my doctor in about three weeks, but then five days later, I got a letter to my house from Action Cancer,” she says. “It said that they wanted to do further investigations and they were going to hand my notes over to Antrim Breast Care Centre.

“A week later, I had an appointment at the hospital. It was like a one-stop shop. I went in and was examined, had another mammogram, then a biopsy and an ultrasound. That day, the 11th of May, I was diagnosed with Stage 2B Breast Cancer.

“It was quite surreal. By the time I was needing a biopsy, I had guessed that there maybe was something up. Then another nurse appeared and I went in with her to the consultant. She was a breast care nurse, called Yvonne, who’d been assigned to me. I was told of the diagnosis and then I went with Yvonne to her office for the next hour just to process it all and go through what my treatment plan would be.

“It was total disbelief that I was sitting there hearing the word ‘cancer’. I actually went to the appointment by myself that day and a lot of people said I should have brought my husband or a friend. But I was glad I went alone. Because when I went into Yvonne’s room, I absolutely fell apart when it hit me and I was able to bawl and cry on her shoulder. If someone else had been with me, I would have probably tried to hold it all together.”

Juliet had surgery to remove the lump and the lymph nodes on one side of her body. She was so worried about how her treatment would affect her kids, but Action Cancer were able to help bring her children on the journey with her by providing a book that explained the whole process. 

They were so involved that, following Juliet’s first chemo treatment, the kids ran to her room when they woke up to check her pillow to see if her hair had fallen out. Obviously, they were unaware of the seriousness of this, which is testament to how well she prepared them.

“I feared the chemo more than the fact I had cancer,” she says. “It was the thought of losing my hair. And it sounds very vain, but I had to just accept that my hair was going to go. I just tried to embrace it and got my hair cut up into a pixie crop. It only lasted a week and it all started to come out, so I just got it all shaved off. I just took control.

“But it was the children who really got me through that period. They just looked at it very practically. They knew that my hair was going to fall out. They were in the next morning after I had had the chemo looking on the pillow to see if it was all there.

“They knew that they’d get to see me with no hair and that I would have all these nice hats, but it would grow back.

“The Breast Care nurse gave me a book for the children called Mummy’s Lump and it explained everything. It illustrated the story of a mum who had found a lump and all the stages — being diagnosed, surgery, hair falling out, the housework not being done, mummy and daddy being a bit tetchy with one another, right through radiotherapy — and out the other side.

“And the last page is a picture of everyone sitting on the beach making sandcastles. And it was a happy ending. Erin was eight and Callum was six when I was diagnosed. I would have read the book with them a few times and then I would see them picking up the book and reading it themselves when I was getting treatment from time to time.

“Keeping life normal for them through the treatment kept me going. I still have to be mummy.”

Juliet says the chemotherapy was gruelling, but she remained positive and kept her focus on the finish line.

“I started chemo at the end of July and that went right through to November 2016,” she says. “At the beginning of December, I had five weeks of radiotherapy which ran right through Christmas.

“I had six treatments of chemo. The first three were a cocktail of drugs. They mainly made me sick. But the last three were a different drug and they floored me. It just came at me like a steam train. It wasn’t sickness, it just drained me of energy. I couldn’t get out of bed the morning after I got it. I felt really helpless. It was tough, but I just kept looking ahead and to when the treatment would be over.

“It’s funny, after my treatment ended, we were on the beach, building sandcastles and I had forgotten all about the book that the Breast Care nurse had given me. And my daughter, Erin, said to me, ‘Mummy, this is the last picture’ in the storybook. And I broke down, about her remembering that a year later.”

And now that she has been given the all clear, Juliet has this message to ladies in Northern Ireland.

“My message to my friends, family and any woman is to use the Big Bus,” she says. “A lot of people are under the misconception that you would go if you felt a lump or you were concerned, but you can just go and get checked.

“Ladies need to make checking themselves something they do every month anyway, but they also need to avail of Action Cancer’s facilities and get themselves on the Big Bus.

“You can be diagnosed with cancer with no symptoms at all. I didn’t feel unwell. I was healthy, went to the gym, kept fit and had plenty of energy. It was a complete shock to me.

“Mine was a small tumour, I could not have felt it myself. The doctor in the hospital couldn’t feel it when she examined me. It was deep seated and had already travelled into one of my lymph nodes.

“The Big Bus saved my life and so did Supervalu, who allow the bus to come to their car parks all over the country to make it handy for people to get to them. And if my story inspires someone to make an appointment for the bus and saves their life as well, then it will have been all worthwhile.”

SuperValu sponsor the Action Cancer Big Bus. The Bus visits stores across Northern Ireland, bringing this life-saving service to thousands of women, particularly in rural areas. For more information on dates when the Big Bus is near you, log on to www.actioncancer.org/How-We-Help/Big-Bus

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