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Breast Cancer: Scars and lumps

'I checked my breasts, found a lump and did something about it' From the outside, there didn't seem to be much wrong with my left nipple at the time, except for the fact that it was attached to a breast that contained a 2cm malignant tumour. However, a breast MRI confirmed that there were further cancer cells under the nipple area. So, not only did my breast have to be removed, but the nipple couldn't be saved either.

Not that I cared at the time. All I wanted was to get into hospital and for someone nice in a white coat, holding a scalpel, to remove the whole lot. Nothing matters more to a cancer patient but to have that cancer taken away. Whether I had no nipple or one in the middle of my forehead was of no consequence.

Fast-forward 18 months and I find myself sitting opposite my plastic/reconstructive surgeon talking about a new nipple for my newly reconstructed breast. He examines his handiwork. Three months ago he had opened my back width-ways under my bra line and pushed the muscle around my armpit up to the front of my chest.

With skin from my back and an implant he had fashioned a breast that brought me from an AA cup to a C cup. (If there is an upside to breast cancer, this has to be it!) He also added an implant to my right breast to balance me out.

He had done an amazing job. I have a myriad of scars but I look perfectly normal in clothes -- but try telling that to my niece who walked in on me when I was trying on a dress recently. She took one look at my exposed breasts, screamed and ran out of the room.

"So you want a new nipple?" asked the consultant.

Yes, if only to stop my niece from having scary dreams.

"That's no problem. We'll sew one on next month. It can be done under local anaesthetic and you can drive yourself home. You will have to wear a size bigger bra for a couple of weeks so there is no compression. Then, in a month or so, your breast-care nurse will tattoo around it so that both areolas match."

I waited for him to say 'and bob's your uncle' but he didn't.

"Where do they get the nipples from?" my son asked later, after I explained the ins and outs of what was to be done.

"You can get them in the frozen section in Supervalu between the pizzas and fish fingers," I replied.

He seemed happy enough with this. When I explained the procedure to my other half he wanted to know did they line up the new nipple against the other one with a spirit level.

Yesterday, I was back with my breast surgeon for my six-monthly check-up. He examined me for lumps and bumps and declared me fit and well.

"Can you believe that you are almost two years on from, shall we call it, the nightmare?" he asked as he scribbled down some notes. The truth is I can't. When I think back to him explaining to me that the abnormalities which had shown up in my lymph node biopsy were due to cancer in my breast, it all feels a little surreal.



terror

Yes, I remember the panic and fear as I fumbled for my keys in the car park.

Yes, I remember the abject terror as I waited for the results to see if the cancer had spread. Yes, I remember the overwhelming joy when I learnt that it hadn't. Yes, I remember the toll of surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy but now, as I go about my daily life, sometimes it feels like it happened to someone else.

And then, every so often, it hits me: What if I hadn't checked my breasts every month? What if I hadn't found that lump under my arm? What if I hadn't gone to my GP to ask him to examine it? What if he hadn't instead immediately referred me to a breast consultant?

Occasionally, those 'what if's' keep me awake at night and then I remind myself that there is no need. I did check my breasts and I did find a lump and I did something about it.

This month is Breast Cancer Awareness month and Action Breast Cancer, under the umbrella of the Irish Cancer Society, is stressing how important it is for women to be Breast Aware. More than 2,500 new cases of breast cancer are diagnosed in Ireland every year which gives Irish women a one in 12 chance of developing the disease.

Action Breast Cancer advise that the sooner you notice any changes to your breast, the more successful the treatment is likely to be. If you do notice any changes to your breast, contact your GP immediately. Don't worry that you may be making an unnecessary fuss and remember that nine out of 10 lumps are harmless.

My lump just happened to be the one in 10 that wasn't, but early diagnosis was the key to my survival. I'm 50 this month. Some people are of the opinion that a 50th birthday might not be something to celebrate, but 50, 60 or 70-- I really don't mind -- I'm just glad to be here, with or without a new nipple!

If you would like to speak to a specialist nurse about breast awareness, please call the Cancer Information Helpline on Freefone 1800 200 700 or see www.cancer.ie/action/ breastawareness