'We're so glad we had breast cancer screening in our 40s'
To mark Breast Cancer Awareness month, Lisburn mum Audra Wright and Newry woman Patricia Jennings talk about how Action Cancer’s screening services saved their lives.
'Getting the diagnosis was like throwing a deck of cards up in the air'
Audra Wright (50), lives in Lisburn with her husband Nigel and their three children, Jamie (24), Josh (21) and Annabel (14). Audra was diagnosed with Action Cancer in December 2015 at the age of 48 when she visited Action Cancer House for a breast screening. She says:
I had my first breast screening in 2011 at Action Cancer, after losing my beloved father to lung cancer in 2010. During my father's illness I was made aware of Action Cancer as a support for myself and my father. I availed of all the services available to me and, more importantly, found out at this stage that Action Cancer offers a free breast screening for women aged from 40-49 and over 70 years of age.
My previous screenings with Action Cancer had been clear, but two weeks after the appointment in 2015 I received a letter from Action Cancer with some concerning news - that the screening had detected something.
My follow-up appointment was at Belfast City Hospital, where I had more tests.
Following an examination, an ultrasound and a biopsy at the hospital I was diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer in my left breast.
My life changed from the moment of diagnosis, it was like getting a deck of cards and throwing them up in the air; life would never be the same again. I believe I was in shock but went through the motions of telling close family and friends.
On February 9, 2016, I had a lumpectomy and a lymph node dissection. Afterwards I had six sessions of chemotherapy which made me incredibly ill. The first session affected me so badly I had to call the 24-hour helpline at Belfast City Hospital for advice and antibiotics. Then, during the third session I had to be hospitalised overnight and by the time I had my fifth session I was admitted to the Cancer Centre for 12 days with septicaemia.
The effects of the chemotherapy took its toll. I was physically and mentally scarred. I had hair loss, weight gain, a swollen face and scars on my left breast. The chemotherapy caused fatigue and nausea. I had limited mobility, shortness of breath and an ache in my bones.
I lost my identity and sense of self. My tolerance levels were low and my self-esteem plummeted.
At this stage I still needed more treatment and had a long course of radiotherapy, which left me exhausted.
Then in December that year, I had another terrible shock. My younger sister, Kathy Ann, who had had a breast cancer diagnosis when she was 45, three weeks after my diagnosis, discovered she carried the BRCA gene.
I had a blood test taken by a geneticist and was found to carry the same BRCA gene as my sister. At an appointment with a geneticist I was told that being a BRCA gene carrier meant I had a higher risk of getting breast cancer at 50% and ovarian cancer at 30%.
Shortly afterwards I discovered both my sisters, as well as myself, are BRCA gene-carriers.
I felt absolutely devastated as I already felt I had been through enough over the last year and knew it was going to mean more surgery.
As I am now classed as a high-risk cancer patient, I have to attend Antrim Area Hospital's breast screening clinic for MRI and scans every year, and six monthly check-ups if there are any changes.
Having met with a breast surgeon I have decided to have a double mastectomy as risk-reducing surgery. I am currently waiting for the operation.
A gynaecologist also told me that I would need to have a hysterectomy as a precaution due to my increased risk of a gynaecological cancer. I've had the op and am recovering well.
Because of my experience I cannot emphasise enough how important screening is. Early detection of breast cancer saves lives. I'd encourage all women to add this to your to-do list as soon as you hit 40.
My family has been devastated over the last two years with the shocking news of myself being diagnosed and then three weeks later my younger sister being diagnosed with breast cancer. It was very difficult for mum having two daughters really ill. The most devastating news then came when all three girls were diagnosed with BRCA 2 gene, so all required further screening and surgery.
Action Cancer has helped me so much with its services. I had a great experience with counselling and acupuncture I feel that Action Cancer support services definitely aided my recovery as cancer affects the physical, mental and emotional sides.
I struggled through depression, anxiety, fear, lack of self-worth and lost myself, but Action Cancer's counselling supported me through it all."
'If I had have waited for a screening it could have been too late for me'
Patricia Jennings (42), lives and works in Newry where she is a college lecturer teaching young adults aged 14-18. She was diagnosed with Action Cancer on February 25, 2016, at the age of 41 when the Big Bus came to Warrenpoint and her sister alerted her to the breast screening appointments available free. She says:
I had no symptoms of breast cancer, but at 41, I thought I would go along with my sister as the Big Bus was so handy for me - about 20 minutes drive from work to Warrenpoint.
The appointment was quick and easy enough. It was my first mammogram, but it wasn't nearly as painful as I had been led to believe. The staff were lovely and I was glad to have gone.
A week later, I received a letter from Action Cancer telling me that I was to attend a further appointment at Belfast City Hospital, as an anomaly had been found during my screening on the Big Bus. The nurse at the hospital did a physical exam and felt a slight lump on my right breast.
I went alone to the appointment, as I didn't want to worry any of my family or friends until I knew what it was I was dealing with.
After a biopsy and a scan of the lump I was diagnosed with Stage 1 Grade B breast cancer. After Easter 2016 I had a lumpectomy and also had a lymph node removed to check for any further signs of cancer. Thankfully the cancer had not spread.
Early detection was important to me. I was lucky I was caught early. My attitude was, and still is, you just have to get on with it. My family and friends were a great support.
Because of early detection, I didn't need to have chemotherapy although I did have a three-week course of radiotherapy as treatment. Now I take Tamoxifen hormonal therapy as additional treatment following surgery, to reduce the risk of the cancer coming back and to reduce the risk of a new breast cancer developing.
Luckily, I suffered few side- effects with the Tamoxifen and am recovering well. The diagnosis has changed me and I no longer worry about the small things in life.
Thankfully, I am now cancer-free and believe the Big Bus and my older sister's advice saved my life. I'm now back to work and have been on a holiday to New York and Boston this summer with a group of friends to celebrate beating cancer and getting back to my old self. As a keen traveller I am planning more trips to Europe and further afield soon, including a fundraising attempt at the Camino di Santiago next summer.
The journey I made that day, just 20 minutes down the road to the Big Bus screening appointment, changed my life forever. It was the most important journey of my life.
I knew that breast screening was available in Belfast, but it's probably not something I would have bothered to do.
It was the very fact that the Big Bus came to me, close to where I lived, that I went for an appointment.
I was 41 when my breast cancer was detected, if I had waited until the health service screening programme kicked in at 50, I'm convinced it would have been too late for me.
My message to other women aged 40-49 and 70-plus is this - go and get screened with Action Cancer. Don't rely on self-checking your breasts, while this is important, mammograms detect things long before there is anything to feel.
Be proactive and book yourself a free mammogram, either on board the Big Bus when it's next in your area or at Action Cancer House in Belfast.
If I hadn't stepped on the Big Bus that day, my outcome could have been very different. Thank you Action Cancer and the Big Bus for saving my life."
For further information, contact Action Cancer's Communications Manager Sian Devlin, tel: 028 9080 3361/07825 266 951 or email firstname.lastname@example.org Northern Ireland Cancer Registry: Breast cancer incidence and mortality rates 1993-2014 Visit nhs.uk/Conditions/Cancer-of-the-breast-female/Pages/Symptoms.aspx
Never ignore the vital signs...
The first symptom of breast cancer most women notice is a lump or an area of thickened tissue in their breast. Most lumps (90%) are not cancerous, but it is always best to have them checked by your doctor.
See your GP if you notice any of the following:
- a lump or area of thickened tissue in either breast
- a change in the size or shape of one or both breasts
- bloodstained discharge from either of your nipples
- 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 into your breasts