'I had a six-month-old baby and I found a lump' - mum (40) diagnosed with highly aggressive breast cancer
THIS Friday, March 23, marks the Irish Cancer Society's Daffodil Day, when people across Ireland will wear a daffodil pin in a show of unity against cancer.
At just 35-years-old and nursing a six month old baby, a cancer diagnosis was the furthest thing from Niamh Gaffney’s mind.
The now 40-year-old from Meath was instead focusing on family life and putting in motion her plan to go back to work when she received the unexpected and equally devastating news that she had breast cancer.
She explained: “My baby was six-months-old when, one night, I was getting dressed for bed and I found a lump – through all of this I am convinced someone was looking out for me, because it wasn’t there the day before. As far as I was concerned something made me notice it and despite the sleep deprivation something made me think this needs to be checked out.”
“My doctor said it was most likely a blocked milk duct, but after I went to the GP, I was called in for a triple assessment, where I had a biopsy, ultrasound and mammogram in the Mater hospital.”
Niamh was sent for assessment and a few weeks later diagnosed with highly aggressive Triple-Negative Breast Cancer.
“My life changed dramatically with the diagnosis. I was made redundant when I tried to go back to work following treatment, and it was then that I experienced the mental and emotional dip that is prevalent among survivors.”
“The unfortunate thing is that everyone feels they are the only one feeling like this, so most people try to hide it and simply then exist behind a mask of ‘normality’.”
Dealing with surgery, fertility preservation treatment, chemotherapy, radiotherapy and then facing redundancy from an executive-level role, the brave mum decided to set up Directionality.
Directionality is a coaching and consultancy company that aims to help people who are dealing with life-altering challenges, be it illness and bereavement or redundancy and retirement.
“I realised the massive need for this for anyone who has gone through a monumental life change.”
“Once the cancer treatment is over, you find yourself suddenly alone and there is a real stress that everything has to go back to normal. But there was no way I could go back to a pre-cancer me anymore than I could go back to a pre-mother me – it’s part of who I am now.”
“I discovered coaching and through that I wanted to let people know that those feelings are a side-effect of cancer as much as hair loss and sickness is and they can be treated.”
Thousands of volunteers will take to the streets to sell the yellow symbol of hope, and many more will host coffee mornings and fun-runs, while some adventurers will throw themselves from planes or sign up to triathlons, all in a heroic effort to raise much needed funds for cancer research.
Every three minutes in Ireland someone gets a cancer diagnosis and devastatingly, every hour, someone dies from the illness.
An average of 40,000 new cases of cancer are diagnosed each year and by 2020, half of us will receive a cancer diagnosis in our lifetime.
With the signs and symptoms of individual cancers so frequently broadcast, and the importance of early detection made so abundantly clear, aside from drinking kale juice, going vegan or whatever other miracle elixir is deemed to cure cancer in any specific week, how much do you actually know about preventative measures when it comes to avoiding cancer?
While the information about cancer prevention is at our finger tips, many of us are still in the dark.
According to Dr Jennifer Westrup, Director of Oncology, and consultant medical oncologist at Dublin's Beacon Hospital (pictured right), many people are digesting the wrong information - to their detriment.
"Each year there is a new focus on some diet that is relentlessly recommended as anti-cancer. The anti-cancer arena touts juicing, raw foods, supplements, herbs, medicinal teas, or numerous diets, like macrobiotic, dairy-free, or sugar-free. There are countless case-reports on the internet making stunning claims not supported by any solid research," she says.
The Associate Clinical Professor at UCD School of Medicine remembers a particular case of a patient in the US and his wife. "He was a lively retired man who had just completed chemotherapy for male breast cancer," she says. "His entire treatment time was illuminated by colourful stories about his wife beating him on the golf course. He proclaimed that the chemotherapy didn't help his putting one damn bit.
"Today, the usual laugh and crinkled eyes were replaced with an unfamiliar frown. I followed his gaze and realised that, although my patient looked well, his wife looked terrible.
"This woman, who matched his vitality and accompanied him on every chemotherapy visit, now appeared very unwell. I looked harder and saw dull, dry skin. Her hair had thinned, she lost muscle mass, and she looked exhausted. In the bright sunbeam she looked… orange?
Had something evolved during all those months she brought her husband to the oncology clinic and Dr Westrup didn't see it? "I closed the door and asked her quietly, 'What is happening?'
"She told me, 'In our age group, cancer becomes almost a normal conversation. I was at my bridge club and several friends were talking about diets that prevent cancer from starting, or that can cure cancer. So, I thought I would change my diet so that I don't get cancer too.'
According to Dr Westrup, the change she had made was dramatic. Dairy products, meat and sugar were abruptly stopped, and she massively increased raw foods. The carotenoids from sweet potato, carrots, asparagus, and leafy vegetables had turned her skin orange, and the sudden loss of vital proteins and nutrients from her usual well-balanced diet had left the woman physically depleted.
"Quick action by an excellent GP, trained in nutrition, helped to re-establish a balanced diet. My patient's wife improved, and she returned to beating her husband at golf.
According to Dr Westrup, neither the scientific data nor the recommendations of respected organisations, such as Cancer Research UK, include specific diet regulations. Instead, the recommendations are general: 1) eat more high-fibre foods and more fruit and vegetables; 2) eat less processed meat and red meat; 3) eat fewer high calorie foods.
"Most of my patients and their families are surprised that I do not recommend one particular diet. However, there are three ways you can reduce your cancer risk right now: 1) If you are obese or overweight, reduce your weight; 2) Start exercising regularly; 3) stop smoking - but you know that already," says Dr Westrup.
Right now, she says, obesity is rapidly overtaking smoking as the leading cause of preventable cancers. Thirteen different cancers are associated with being overweight, including two of the most common cancers: breast cancer and bowel cancer.
"Too much body fat can cause an increase in hormones, insulin and inflammation, all of which promote cancer growth. (To determine if you are overweight or obese, try an online body mass index calculator, this assesses your body fat using your height and weight).
"Leading global cancer organisations now have policy statements on obesity and cancer, recognising the toll that obesity has, not only on cancer patients and cancer survivors, but also on the health of the entire population."
Dr Westrup explains that too many calories and too little exercise results in obesity. To change your cancer risk, you must balance calories and exercise.
"The data is clear on exercise. People who exercise develop fewer cancers. For example, physically active people have a 25pc lower incidence of colon cancer, a 20pc lower risk of endometrial cancer, and a 12pc lower risk of breast cancer. People who have had a cancer develop fewer recurrences if they exercise.
"Exercise engages the immune system to combat cancer, and is proven in an amazing study by Danish researchers (see reading below). In Beacon Oncology, we feel so strongly about exercise and the proven benefits that we have an exercise program for cancer patients while they are on treatment.
She says that in epidemiological studies, physical activity has been shown to reduce the risk of many cancers including: oesophageal cancer, gastric cancer, myeloid leukaemia, head and neck cancer, rectal cancer, kidney cancer, myeloma, and bladder cancer.
"Exercise is not only anti-cancer, it is great for weight management, stress reduction, well-being, and cardiovascular health. Ultimately, my patient and his wife likely got the biggest benefits from their regular golfing. It may be easier to whizz up a blueberry antioxidant juice in the blender than it is to fit in daily exercise, address your weight, or quit smoking, but the research and the data are undeniable.
"There is no magic pill or perfect diet. The best elixir we know right now is exercise and weight management. Take a moment to assess the things you can control: weight, exercise and smoking."
Daffodil Day takes place this Friday. To hold an event, volunteer and raise vital funds to support cancer patients and their families across Ireland, see www.cancer.ie