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Our very personal reasons for helping find breast cancer cure

Ahead of Breast Cancer awareness month in October, Marie Foy talks to three women here about their battle with the disease and why they will be supporting Cancer Focus Northern Ireland’s fundraising for vital research

Cancer Focus Northern Ireland is asking local women to get in the pink this October to raise awareness of breast cancer and to help fund research.

Get the girls together for a pink night in, a movie night, a pamper party, or even a coffee morning to raise funds for vital breast cancer research being conductedat Queen's University, Belfast (QUB).

Breast cancer is the most common cancer in women in Northern Ireland - every year 1,300 are diagnosed and 300 lose their lives.

Rosie Forsythe, community fundraising manager for Cancer Focus NI, says: "We've been funding research at QUB for a number of years."

  • The In Pink campaign is run in partnership with Medicare Pharmacy Group.
  • You can get a Pink Party pack with lots more fundraising ideas at cancerfocusni.org/pink, or tel: 028 9066 3281/ email fundraising@cancerfocusni.org.

'I have faulty gene but had preventive surgery'

Joanne Clarke (40) from Newry has BRCA2 mutation and has had a double mastectomy. She is married to Adrian (44) and they have two daughters, Anna (13) and Ellen (10). Joanne is adamant that more research into the condition is needed and urges people to help Cancer Focus NI raise cash for this important cause. She says:

I found out I had BRCA2 almost by accident. My mother Anne was adopted so she had no idea what her family medical history was. She had three unrelated breast cancer diagnoses at the ages of 51, 55 and 64. The third time, unfortunately, it had spread to her liver. She was terminally ill and had a lot of treatment ahead of her. I'd been attending a breast clinic and was sent to the genetics department for further investigation but, because I couldn't provide any family history and because my mum was over 50 when she first had cancer, they wouldn't test me for BRCA.

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Looking ahead: Joanne with Adrian and daughters Ellen and Anna

In 2013, I was referred back to genetics. I was tested and found out I had BRCA2. I strongly feel that it shouldn't have been so difficult for me to get tested, and the criteria needs to change. If I hadn't found out I had the gene, my children wouldn't be eligible for testing either, which doesn't bear thinking about. A year later, in October 2015, I had my fallopian tubes removed - I didn't want my ovaries removed as I didn't want to go into early menopause - and a double mastectomy in December 2015.

It wasn't a difficult decision to make - not after seeing how my mum fought the disease for so long. If she had known she had the faulty gene she would probably still be here.

I made the decision for my husband and also my two girls as well - I wouldn't want them to watch me going through that.

And of course I want to be around to help them grow up. They are still young and may have a similar decision to make.

There's a 50/50 chance I have passed the gene on to them, but I'm hopeful that by the time they are older they will have much better options available to them.

That is where the research comes in. It's my children's generation who will benefit from new discoveries.

It is the only way to stop this devastating gene from being passed down through generations, so I appeal to everyone to help Cancer Focus NI raise funds for research this October."

'Make sure you go for screenings when you're called... it could save your life'

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Regular checks: Evelyn Waring’s cancer was found during routine mammogram

Evelyn Waring (54), from south Belfast, was diagnosed with breast cancer three years ago. A volunteer with Cancer Focus NI, she is backing the charity's  October campaign for breast  cancer research. She says:

When I was about 49 I decided to go for a voluntary mammogram as it seemed a sensible thing to do. I was called for a follow-up ultrasound but was given the all-clear.

About 18 months later, I got the regular call for a mammogram that every woman over the age of 50 receives. I wasn't going to go because I thought everything was fine.

When I rang to cancel the appointment, a staff member from the health service screening service said 'No, you need to come'. He persuaded me that it was important to go, and I'm so thankful I did. That one phone conversation possibly saved my life.

I had a mammogram, ultrasound scan and biopsy. When I was called to see the doctor, I was asked if I wanted my sister to come in with me but I said no. I was shown into a room with comfortable seats and thought, 'This isn't going to be good'.

The doctor said 'I'm very sorry to have to tell you that you have breast cancer'. My eyes welled up but I didn't cry. I was very shocked. The first thing I said was 'Can I have my sister in please?'.

The doctor was just lovely, so empathetic but, though she explained everything to me, it all went over my head, it was a blur.

The breast care nurse had everything written down, which really helped on my rollercoaster ride.

I was told I'd have to have an operation, which was the last thing I expected. I thought this sort of thing just wouldn't happen to me, but more tests showed I had two tumours on the left breast.

When I had the operation in September 2014, my surgeon discovered the tumour was 9cm and said I'd need a mastectomy. I was numb.

I had six sessions of chemotherapy over five months. One time, while I was waiting, the Clash song 'should I stay or should I go' was in my head. I smiled at that, but stayed.

Later I had breast reconstruction, which was major surgery. After I'd recovered, I had six weeks of radiotherapy. I'm still taking Tamoxifen [a cancer drug] and I have yearly mammogram checks. 

I feel lucky that I was called for screening - my story could have been so very different. One message to everyone is make sure you go for screenings when you're called. It's so important, it could save your life. That's not a throw away cliche, it's a fact for me.

I've used Cancer Focus NI's wellbeing, art therapy and bra-fitting services. It's an excellent charity and I can't thank them enough for helping me.

Research is a huge part of tackling cancer and I'd urge everyone to support their October campaign for breast cancer research - it really will make a difference."

'I'm fighting two cancers but I have self-belief...and great support too'

Denise Patrick (61), from  Belfast, is undergoing treatment for breast cancer and multiple myeloma. Both cancers were diagnosed within a month, leaving her reeling. The retired London-born professional, who worked for 26 years as a head teacher in several challenging inner-city schools, recently celebrated 40 years of marriage to Paul. They have two children and six grandchildren. She says:

While most people wait three weeks for their breast cancer to be treated, I had to wait a traumatic seven months.

Fighting two cancers meant doctors had to choose which one to tackle first before they moved on to the next. It was a terrifying ordeal as I agonised over whether their decision would be the right one.

But the myeloma, a type of bone marrow cancer which was diagnosed first in August last year, was already affecting many areas of my body. The lobular breast cancer, though serious, was localised, so it took a back seat.

My journey has been riddled with medical complications including a pulmonary embolism and a rare blood virus which caused temporary paralysis.

But as we raced against time to make sure my breast cancer didn't spread, I received uplifting news that the chemo for the myeloma along with a hormone suppressant drug had probably helped shrink the breast tumour.

In May 2017, I had a wide section lumpectomy followed by radiotherapy in July and was given the encouraging news my back-seat driver was no longer a passenger in my life.

I've been in remission from myeloma since last January and recently was taken off a breast cancer suppressant drug, which was causing me pain. I'm feeling so much better now and remnants of my old energetic self are beginning to return.

I'm due to go for stem cell transplant in the next few months and even though this is daunting, I feel ready to take on the challenge.

I've always been a very active person, so when I took early retirement six years ago I couldn't understand why my body ached more than normal. I knew something wasn't right.

I went to A&E with what turned out to be a hiatus hernia. The doctor advised me to get a CT scan, as he had further concerns.

Within 48 hours my life had changed. I was diagnosed with multiple myeloma with osteolytic lesions, areas of severe bone loss, in various parts of my body. It was confirmed following a bone marrow biopsy. The shock left me reeling as I tried to make sense of the numbing news.

My family was devastated and reacted badly to the news. There'd been no mention of the disease in our family up until now, but then I discovered there had been leukaemia on my father's side and breast cancer on my mother's. That older generation had tucked it under the carpet. I'm glad that sort of sweeping denial will stop with me.

No one wants one cancer, let alone two, but I've decided to take a positive and undefeated approach. I've gone through a roller coaster of emotions. Yet I've found many strategies to help me cope and I've dug deep inside myself to discover a well of resourceful self-belief that has kept me pushing forward.

I've had invaluable counselling support from Cancer Focus NI and joined the charity's Writing for Life sessions - the best thing I've ever done.

Someone recently told me my cancer 'doesn't pity me' because I look so well. I openly talk about my cancer not to elicit pity but to enable others to feel comfortable around the subject.

While the past year has been traumatic, it has also been humbling as so many people have held me in their prayers across all religions.

I make a point of urging people to be aware and support the Cancer Focus NI campaign to raise funds for breast cancer research.

I know only too well that every new development and discovery gives sufferers more time in remission and as treatments improve so does our hope."

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