'Keep your chin up and stay busy... my advice on facing down the diagnosis we all dread'
Cancer survivor says distraction of new venture and the positivity of loved ones got her through chemo
A Co Tyrone mother-of-four who built a successful business from her sick bed as she recovered from gruelling chemotherapy says other women on the same journey must "keep hope alive, stay positive and focus on the future".
Thirty-eight-year-old children's nurse Bernie Rafferty was diagnosed with aggressive stage three breast cancer last year. She says that while floored by chemo she'd work building up her business, selling Forever Living aloe vera health and wellness products from bed, building a customer base and dispatching her husband out with deliveries. Bernie - who has now been given the all clear - says it was a distraction that got her through some extremely tough days.
Bernie found a lump in her breast last year while on holiday in America with her husband Noel and her children Shay (10), Dara (7), Aaron (6) and Callum (2).
"Last Easter we were on holiday in Florida and I found a lump high up on my chest," she said. "I got a bit on sunburn and I discovered a lump when my skin started the peel. It was the holiday of a lifetime. At the time I just thought what the hell is that? A few years earlier when I was pregnant with my youngest I had found a lump and it was a blocked milk duct and I convinced myself it was that.
"I am a children's nurse and I should have been checking myself. Through my business - Forever Living - I was promoting deodorant every October for Breast Cancer awareness and I wasn't checking myself. So it was very ironic.
"I tried to put it to the back of my mind and came home from holidays and went to my GP. I didn't tell my husband until we got home. I was waiting almost six weeks to get an appointment at the breast clinic and I noticed the lump was getting bigger. I went back to my GP and they got me in a few days later.
"On June 5, I went over to the breast clinic at Craigavon Area Hospital. The worst thoughts were going through my head. I had myself dead and buried and was worrying who was going to look after my children.
"I went by myself to the clinic. I changed into a gown and waited with other women in the waiting area. The doctor saw me and examined me and I got a mammogram done, then another, then an ultrasound and they said there was something there that needed a biopsy and then they put me into a relative's room. I sort of knew something was wrong because they kept asking if I was on my own and could they call someone to come and sit with me. I waited about 45 minutes and then the results came back and they said I had stage three HER2 Positive Breast Cancer. I had two different tumours and it was quite an aggressive cancer.
"I went into shock. Everything was in slow motion. The staff were so good, one of the nurses actually offered to leave me home. But I went on myself.
"I really didn't shed a tear and it didn't hit me until I started losing my hair after the first session of chemo. I kept saying to my husband that I thought there was something wrong with me, that I had no emotion. My sister was in bits, my mother was in bits and for me it was just so surreal.
"Everyone was rallying around me and ringing and the place was coming down with flowers when people heard of my diagnosis. But I was so strong. I kept thinking that I should be in bits, but I wasn't.
"The day of my first chemo treatment my uncle died and I couldn't even shed a tear. I had no emotions. It was pure shock."
But after embarking on her first round of chemo, the reality of the situation hit home for Bernie and she broke down.
"The chemo was horrendous," she said. "It was very tough. It was every three weeks I went in and got it over six cycles. So it just floored me for a week, then I'd get back to myself again and then I'd go back in for another treatment and the same again. The day of my first chemo they fitted me for a wig. That was very hard and I wasn't ready for that at all. I went home with the wig, put it in the box and didn't even look at it.
"They did tell me my hair would fall out between my first and second treatment and that is exactly what happened. After about 10 days it started to come out quite a lot. It was one Wednesday night I was in the shower and it just came out in clumps. The kids were in bed and my husband was sleeping. That is when it hit me. I broke down. I just called my sister and cried and cried. That was very tough. And it was tough for the children as well.
"I told my oldest son first. I spent a bit of time with him and explained that mummy had a bad lump and that I needed very strong medicine to get rid of it and that it would make my hair fall out. When we were all together I got the wig out and had a bit of craic with it. Everyone tried it on and we took pictures and I think that lightened the mood a little. But the children have been so resilient with it all."
Through it all, Bernie never gave up hope. She says building her home business kept her focus firmly on a bright future. "I never ever gave up hope," she told me. "I stayed positive. I just told myself that this was not going to beat me. I said that there is no way that I'm leaving my four children. It just wasn't going to happen. From day one I threw myself into being positive and seeing a good outcome. In fairness, the oncologist was very good. They gave me everything possible because of my age. I was first to trial a new drug at Craigavon.
"I had to give up children's nursing when I was diagnosed due to the risk of infection. I was a Forever Business owner from when I was on maternity leave with my second youngest child. I signed up to earn a few pounds extra on maternity leave. The business had been growing when I got cancer.
"I was going to park the business as well because there was so much going on. But then I found that when I was in bed sick with the chemo, there was only so many hours I could sleep, I wasn't fit to go about the house so I just started working on the business. I contacted my team and my customers from my bed. My husband offered to do deliveries for me. My business just took off."
Bernie kept her determination and focus strong until the day she had been waiting for finally arrived.
"I had chemo between June and October and I had surgery five days before Christmas 2017," she said. "They removed the tissue from my breast where the tumour was. And when they tested it, it was completely gone. It was the biggest relief of my life. I was so happy."
"I would say to other women going through this to keep hope alive," added Bernie. "Positivity is key. Look after your mental health through it all. For me it was definitely keeping positive and surrounding yourself with positive people. Do not go near Google and look at worst-case scenarios. For me my business was a great distraction. Having something to focus on was a great way to get myself through it."
And she has this advice for women of all ages.
"I was very lucky that I was caught early," she said. "The oncologist said that had I left it another couple of months it would have been a completely different prognosis as it would have spread to my lymph nodes. I would advise ladies to check themselves and if they have any concerns at all go and get checked out."