Saturday 22 October 2016

Cancer survivor Marie: ‘I get a yearly adrenaline rush when my mammogram results come up clear’

After a masectomy, eight rounds of chemotherapy and 25 radiotherapy sessions, Marie Carberry beat breast cancer. Five years on, she looks back at the highs and lows of her experience with the disease

Marie Carberry
Marie Carberry

In the Cancer Awareness Week that's in it, it is interesting to see research produced by The Eve Appeal Women's Cancer Charity in the UK.

It shows a reluctance of women, most evident in those aged between 46 and 55, to seek medical help for symptoms such as changes to periods, persistent bloating or pelvic discomfort, because they believed these symptoms were par for the course for women their age.

I say this as someone who sat before a breast consultant as he drew a pair of breasts on a piece of paper, accompanied by an 'X' under the left armpit to show me where my problems lay.

Back then, I was an AA cup size, flat chested and the owner of many padded bras to try and give some uplift. When I think about it now, I laugh, but at the time I thought, because his drawing featured these rather large breasts, that he was just talking generally and not about me.

This is how unaware I was of the problem facing me. Yes, I had a lump under my arm but there were no lumps in my breast, so surely, all was okay then? Wrong. The reason I had a lump under my arm was because the breast cancer had spread to my lymph nodes.

Within two weeks, I had undergone a mastectomy and removal of all lymph nodes under my arm.

The surgery was followed by eight rounds of chemotherapy and 25 sessions of radiotherapy. This all took place in 2010 and, this year, I reached the milestone of five years clear of cancer. Another five years older, another five years' worth of wrinkles, but I'm still here and there is nothing that beats that.

Marie Carberry in 2010

Numbers are very important when you are a cancer survivor. After five comes 85. This is the percentage of women who will survive for five years after their initial diagnosis of breast cancer. Yet another number, for me, was 25pc. This was the answer my oncologist gave to my question of, "What are the chances of it coming back?"

Back in 2010, five years might as well have been 25 - such was the chasm that seemed to be in front of me.

How was I going to put in 1,825 days and nights without worrying that every little pain and ache wasn't the return of cancer? The answer to that question is you just do and it's far from a 'battle' that that it is often portrayed to be. You put in the days and the months because you just have to.

The good news is that, as time goes by, you think about cancer less and less and then, suddenly, you realise that days have gone by and you haven't thought about it at all. Sometimes I even feel like it happened to someone else.

There have been some lows over the last few year, many highs, and some laugh-out-loud moments, such as the first time I wore a prosthetic breast without a mastectomy bra and it fell out onto the ground as I was talking to the car mechanic.

He never said a word as I reached down, picked it up and stuffed it into my pocket.

Or the time, without wearing my wig, I answered the doorbell in my parents' house to a friend of my dad's, who I hadn't seen in a long time. Black around the eyes and as bald as Uncle Fester, he took one look at me and roared, "Jesus, Christ of Almighty, what did you do to your hair! Have you become a one of those goth things?" (I think he was confusing goths with skinheads).

"Um… I have cancer," I replied.

"Oh, right," was all he managed to say.

I got the distinct impression that looking like a goth was far worse than having cancer. We did have a good laugh about it afterwards though.

And then there was the time I bought a fringe on the internet to wear under a scarf (pictured left). When it arrived, it looked like a ferret sitting in a box and I half expected it to bite me. The next time I saw it, my 11-year-old son was wearing it attached to his head (don't ask!) as he was playing football.

Some of the lows in the first couple of years included panic attacks and many sleepless nights. When I did finally succumb to the Land of Nod, I would often wake up, heart thumping as I realised I had forgotten to take my medication.

Falling out of bed with shock, I would end up scrabbling around on hands and knees looking for it - it would slowly dawn on me that I wasn't actually on any medication and that my psyche was causing this behaviour.

As time went by, my sleep returned and I stopped falling out of bed - much to my husband's relief.

Some of the many highs came through our much maligned health service. I was treated privately and publicly and can honestly say that I was treated with dignity and respect at all times.

Mammograms are now a yearly event and I still get an adrenaline rush each time they come up clear.

It's also a great excuse to stop off at Liffey Valley shopping centre on my way home and reward myself with a little retail therapy.

Another high was waking up in the hospital four years ago after reconstructive surgery, with brand new C cup breasts that still manage to stay up on their own. Oh, how I love to boast to my friends about that!

According to the Irish Cancer Society, there are more than 2,600 new cases of breast cancer diagnosed in Ireland every year, with Irish women having a one-in-10 chance of developing breast cancer in their lifetime.

The risk of breast cancer increases with age with about 80pc of it occurring in women over 50 years of age. Breast cancer, though rare, can occur in men too.


The great thing about the passage of time is that medicine is improving all the time.

In a recent interview, Professor Arnie Hill, head of the Medical School at the Royal College of Surgeons (pictured above), said that he believes that surgery for breast cancer will decline as treatments improve.

"There will be three drugs given in the future and 70pc will be treated without surgery, which will change the disease from a (potentially) fatal one to a chronic one that can be managed."

Bisphosphonates are drugs that help strengthen and reduce fractures in bones that have been weakened by metastatic cancer.

A monthly injection stops the activity of breast cancer in the bones. The disease doesn't go away but it does prolong the life of a lot of patients.

I will always be grateful for the availability of chemotherapy but it's fair to say that it is a one-size-fits-all treatment. The whole idea is to blast whatever cancer cells may be in the body to kingdom come.

Chemotherapy is a debilitating and brutal treatment, but one that I would have stapled myself to the hospital door to avail of. Thankfully, I didn't need to do that, but the great news for breast cancer patients is the development of oncotyping.

This is a test that doctors can use to discover the risk of cancer occurring in other parts of the body. If the risk is low then chemotherapy can be reduced or, in some cases, not applied at all.

Radiotherapy can also now be delivered in a different way. Intraoperative radiation treatment delivers a concentrated dose of treatment during surgery, the most obvious benefit being not having to turn up at the hospital daily for five weeks. The one off dose also reduces the amount of skin damage around the affected area.

Survival rates for women with breast cancer tripled in the 60 years from 1944 to 2004. Research carried out by the University of Texas Cancer Centre showed that between 1944 and 1954, only 25.1pc of women survived for 10 years. Figures for 1994 to 2004 showed that this figure had increased to 77pc.

Early diagnosis combined with the increase in screening have played a major part in this and I cannot emphasise enough how important it is to take the first step of visiting your GP if you have any worries. I did just that and, five years later, I'm still here.

Like I said, nothing beats that.

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