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The women who want to see breast screening for all ages

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Feeling better: Catherine Abernethy (left) and Dorothy McAlinden

Feeling better: Catherine Abernethy (left) and Dorothy McAlinden

Road to recovery: the Action Cancer Big Bus

Road to recovery: the Action Cancer Big Bus

Feeling better: Catherine Abernethy (left) and Dorothy McAlinden

Women in their 40s and over the age of 70 are not routinely screened for breast cancer here, but booking yourself a check-up with Action Cancer could save your life, as two mums found out.

Women aged between 40-49 and 70-plus fall outside the NHS age brackets for breast screening, yet taking steps to look after your health at these ages could save your life.

Action Cancer has launched its annual Breast Cancer Awareness Month (BCAM) campaign to increase awareness of the disease and encourage women in these age groups to book a breast screening with the charity.

Approximately 1,240 women are diagnosed with breast cancer and 300 die from the disease in Northern Ireland every year. For every 1,000 women screened by Action Cancer, an average of six cancers are detected.

The free screening is on offer at Action Cancer House in Belfast and on board the charity's Big Bus, supported by SuperValu and its independent retailers which travel to 220 locations throughout Northern Ireland every year.

The charity's digital mammography equipment can detect cancer in its early stages when treatment can be more successful. The vast majority of women who come for screening will, however, receive clear results and will be given peace of mind.

The BCAM campaign, which has been supported by Gordons Chemists over the last seven years, welcomes additional support this year from partners Menarys and Tempest, helping to spread the key message to target audiences that "early detection saves lives". The charity aims to increase the number of women screened from 8,296 last year to 10,000 women in 2014-2015.

Two women who owe their lives to the charity's work share their stories to encourage other women to book a mammogram.

'I'd no symptoms, but I had a feeling something was wrong'

Dorothy McAlinden is 82-years-old and lives just outside Castlewellan. She is widowed and has six grown-up children and 12 grandchildren, who all live close by. Dorothy was diagnosed with breast cancer following screening on board Action Cancer's Big Bus in October 2013.

Dorothy decided to book an appointment for breast screening on board the Big Bus after seeing an advertisement for it in her local newspaper.

"I saw that it was coming to Ballynahinch and I knew what to expect as I had been for a screening up at Action Cancer House three years previously," she says. "I thought the Big Bus is practically coming to my doorstep, I have no excuse. I phoned a friend and said 'Come on, we're going'."

Just like her first experience at Action Cancer, Dorothy did not find the mammogram painful. "It borders on uncomfortable but was very quick and easy, plus the staff on board the Big Bus were very pleasant and helped me to feel relaxed."

Unlike her first experience, however, the mammogram brought concerning results.

Dorothy received a letter within a number of days saying that the screening had picked something up and that further investigation at a breast clinic was required.

"To be honest, when I opened that letter and read the contents I didn't feel shocked," says Dorothy. "I had no symptoms but I had a feeling that something was wrong. I thought to myself 'Ok, Dorothy, let's get this seen to.'"

Following further screening at the Ulster Hospital and a needle test on her right breast, Dorothy was told that she had cancer but it was unclear how extensively it had spread.

Dorothy underwent surgery on November 4 when she had a quadranectomy, where a quarter of her right breast was removed.

"The lump discovered was irregular in size, ranging from 6-12 mm. The surgeon did a wonderful job making an incision below the breast so you can't see the scar. I had little to no pain, problems or infections following surgery. I was very fortunate."

During the operation one lymph gland was removed and checked to see if the cancer had spread but it hadn't.

A month after her surgery Dorothy was brought in and was told that she wouldn't need radiotherapy or chemotherapy which was a great relief. Dorothy is now doing well and is cancer-free.

"When people are older, they are inclined to think 'What's the point?'

"But there's every point – you've got the rest of your life ahead of you. You are never too old to be proactive about anything – if you're proactive you have less to worry about. For most women the screening will produce clear results, reassuring you that everything is fine."

Dorothy's consultant said it would have been three years before she would have noticed any bump herself.

"By that stage it may have been too late for me," she says. "I am very grateful to Action Cancer for detecting the cancer at such an early stage that it could be dealt with quickly.

"Action Cancer's breast screening could save your life. I want to encourage women aged 40-49 and 70-plus to be proactive and book an appointment today."

'It has been a difficult journey, but now I've got the all-clear'

Catherine Abernethy (50) lives in Mullaghconnor, Dungannon, with her husband Tony, daughters Erinn (22), Bernice (21), sons Donovan (17), Frankie (14) and grandson, Blaine (4). Catherine's breast cancer was detected by Action Cancer in November 2012.

Catherine first heard about Action Cancer's screening programme when her son brought home a flyer advertising that the charity's Big Bus was coming to his school, Blessed Patrick O'Loughran, in Castlecaulfield.

"I was aged 46 at the time and eligible for a breast screening with the charity, but when I went to book an appointment all the slots had been filled," explains Catherine.

"Both my mum and my sister had recently been diagnosed with breast cancer so I thought 'Right, I need to be proactive about my own health'. I phoned up and arranged to have a mammogram done at Action Cancer in Belfast."

Catherine had her first breast screening in November 2010. "I couldn't believe how quick it was. The staff were very welcoming and helped you to feel relaxed.

"I only found it slightly uncomfortable and was in and out in 15 minutes. Two weeks later I received a letter with clear results, which was a great relief."

Two years later, now aged 48, Catherine received a letter from Action Cancer saying that it was time for another mammogram.

It was at this second screening that Action Cancer detected an abnormality in her left breast. She was then referred to the Belfast City Hospital for further investigation.

"When I looked at all the other visitors in the hospital I thought to myself 'Surely all these people can't walk away here with bad news?'" says Catherine.

"I had another mammogram and two biopsies that day. I tried to stay positive but my fears were confirmed, I had breast cancer, in the lump on my left breast and in my lymph nodes.

"I don't know where my strength came from, I normally worry about everybody and everything, but that day I decided to tackle head on what lay ahead of me, my family needed me."

Catherine underwent surgery in January 2013. She didn't have to lose her breast because of where the lump was situated. At 11mm in size it was removed alongside 14 lymph nodes which were then tested – seven were infected and seven were not.

During the operation the nipple was removed and then replaced. Catherine recovered well and then had to undergo a course of chemotherapy beginning in February followed by radiotherapy.

"I couldn't wait for the chemo to start and I couldn't wait for it to end. I just wanted to live. I was prepared for losing my hair because I felt pins and needles on my head.

"A few days later I sat on the edge of my bed and just pulled my hair into black bin bags.

"There was no hair left on my body, I wasn't emotional, the chemo was clearly doing its job."

Catherine took an allergic reaction to a chemo drug and ended up in intensive care.

"This was a very frightening time for my family, it was touch and go, and when I came round I had to learn to walk again," she says.

It was then the doctors decided that Catherine could no longer have any more chemo and would have to move on to the radiotherapy treatment.

Although Catherine found this much easier than chemo she was constantly tired with a metallic taste in her mouth. She also found it hard to think straight at times. Finally, her treatment came to an end in July 2013.

"My family and I have been on such difficult journey, but I am now cancer-free. The surgeon told me that the lump was growing inwardly and this was why I had no signs or symptoms.

"Without going for screening I dread to think what size the lump would have grown to without being noticed. I reckon Action Cancer saved my life.

"My message to other women aged 40-49 and 70- plus is to book a free mammogram today."

Catherine adds: "If you drive a car you prioritise getting an MOT Your body is more important and it should come first – get your breasts checked, it's as simple as that."

Helping in drive against disease

Action Cancer's Big Bus visits 220 locations across NI every year for workplace and public screening

It provides digital breast screening for women and MOT health checks for men and women

SuperValu and its independent retailers have provided £1.25m of funding for the bus since it began operating in 2006, including annual running costs of £120,000

Women aged 40-49 and 70-plus can book an appointment on board the Big Bus or at Action Cancer House in South Belfast online at www.actioncancer.org or by calling 028 9080 3344

To support Action Cancer's fundraising email pink@actioncancer.org

Warning signs to look out for

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
  • discharge from either of your nipples (which may be streaked with blood)
  • 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 breast

Belfast Telegraph