Newry woman (54) devastated by return of cancer hails work of charity helping her battle disease again
A Newry woman has described her devastation at finding out she had secondary breast cancer five years after beating the disease.
Margaret McAteer believed kidney stones were to blame for the pain in her side, but last November tests revealed the cancer was back and had broken one of her ribs.
She is now receiving palliative chemotherapy to try and keep the disease at bay and has told how a leading cancer charity has helped her cope through her fight to survive, as well as the loss of her mother, who died from cancer.
Margaret (54) is speaking out as Charis Cancer Care marks its ninth birthday and as it receives the Queen's Award for Voluntary Service, the highest award given to voluntary groups across the UK.
"I don't know where I would be without Charis," she said.
"It is truly unique providing cancer patients and their family members with complementary support and therapies free of charge.
"I think no matter what stage of the cancer journey you are at, they understand what people are going through.
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"They know how you feel without you actually having to say it and it's also refreshing being able to speak to people who aren't family or friends, you can go to Charis and be totally upfront and honest about what you're thinking and feeling."
Margaret was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 2012.
After finding a lump while having a shower she made an appointment with her GP, who referred her to the breast clinic at Craigavon.
"It was a lump the size of a pea under my breast and there was a history of breast cancer in my family, so I was worried right away," she said.
"It was still such a shock to be told I had cancer, although they told me it was treatable and I decided that I wasn't going to let it beat me."
Margaret underwent a lumpectomy and embarked on a gruelling course of chemotherapy and radiotherapy.
"By the time I was getting the sixth session of chemotherapy, I really wasn't good," continued Margaret.
"Losing your hair is quite traumatic, it was coming out in quite big clumps and my cousin is a hairdresser, so I rang her and asked her to come round and shave my head at some stage.
"She said that because I was talking about, it needed to be done straight away and I'm glad she did it then because I didn't have time to think about it.
"I also suffered burns from the radiotherapy, which were quite sore, but I got through it and started on Tamoxifen."
It was once Margaret finished her treatment that she discovered Charis and the charity helped to fill the void left as she began to process the trauma of her fight for life.
She added: "When you're going through treatment, you're so busy with appointments, hospital appointments, blood tests, scans, running to the GP because your mouth is breaking out with ulcers.
"You're getting radiotherapy every day and all of a sudden it all stops and there is nothing: no hospital, no doctor, nothing and you feel in limbo, and it was then that I went to Charis.
"They really were incredible and they even helped me get through the death of my mother."
Margaret became more involved with Charis over the years, raising money to support the charity to deliver its services, until she was appointed a trustee.
However, last year she began to experience pain in her side that she originally put down to kidney stones.
"I was going back and forward to the doctor for this pain, which I thought was maybe muscular, and then I had diagnosed myself with kidney stones," she explained.
"I ended up going for a scan and the doctor rang me and told me they knew what was causing the pain.
"He said I had a broken rib, but then explained the cancer was back and had broken my rib.
"I was totally floored, I can honestly say I didn't hear another word he said, I was working as a civil servant in the Executive Office at the time and I went to pieces, my boss came over and took over and arranged to get me home."
Margaret went through further tests, which revealed the cancer was present in her breast bone, shoulder, ribs, vertebrae, pelvis and hips and she started a new chemotherapy drug.
The latest scans have shown it has spread further, but it is not known whether this happened before she began her new treatment regime.
"It has been so tough," she said.
"In my head, I was a survivor, I had done it, I was beyond the cancer, yet here I am going through it all again.
"I'm waiting to find out what is going to happen next with my treatment, whether I am going to stay on the chemotherapy or try a different drug.
"I'm in an awful lot of pain, so some of the 19 tablets I take every day are morphine.
"Charis has been amazing through all of it, you don't have to be brave, you can just sit there and cry. I am trying to stay positive, though, and I feel lucky that it hasn't spread to any of my organs yet.
"I try to look on the bright side and keep positive, keep going as long as can, but I definitely couldn't have got through it so far without the team at Charis."