There's life aftter the Big C - I'm proof
With breast cancer awareness month almost upon us, Marie Carberry reflects on her own fight with the disease. To celebrate her continuing recovery, the Herald treated her to a makeover
Every year, more than 2,800 women in Ireland are diagnosed with breast cancer. Irish women have a one-in-10 chance of developing breast cancer. Some 70pc of Irish women with breast cancer discover the lump themselves. I had heard of these numbers before, yet when I found a lump under my own arm, the last thing I thought of was breast cancer.
For a start, I regularly checked my breasts for lumps, but I never checked under my arms. The lump only came to light in January when I put my hands under my armpits to keep warm. For about a week, I was convinced it was a cyst that would go away, but when it didn't, I took myself off to see Dr Gaffney, my GP.
Now, I like Dr Gaffney because he smiles a lot, but when he examined the lump under my arm, he didn't smile, and I wondered if there might be a problem, even though he found no lump on my breast. When the consultant I was referred to couldn't locate any lumps either, I started to relax. A biopsy was carried out and I was sent home.
A week later, the result came through and the news wasn't good. There were abnormalities in the sample and it would have to go for further staining. Immediately, I googled 'lump under armpit' and quickly came to the conclusion that I either had lymphoma or the chicken pox.
I had neither, but I did have breast cancer, and the diagnosis came as an enormous shock to me because I thought that a) I was too young, b) I didn't feel ill and c) it only happens to other people. I was quickly disabused of these notions. One-in-10 women will get breast cancer and I just happened to be one of them. While it is true that the risk of breast cancer increases as we grow older, it can occur at any age and it is on the increase. Many doctors and scientists point to our lifestyles for the upward trend. Too much alcohol, cigarettes and processed food are all thought to increase our chances of getting breast cancer.
Once a diagnosis has been made, the medical system swings into action, which, in itself, can be quite shocking. It feels as if the carpet has been whipped from beneath your feet as you are suddenly plunged into a world of hospital appointments, scans and surgery. Within two weeks, I'd had my breast removed. I had just enough time to recover from that when it was time for chemotherapy. It was a roller coaster, and your emotions are all over the place, but there is a support system to help you through.
After my surgery, I was appointed a breast-care nurse. She was and continues to be a valuable source of information on support that I never knew existed, such as medical cards for the seriously ill and the grants available from the Irish Cancer Society. She also pointed me in the direction of support centres such as ARC and Little Way.
There are also things you can do to help yourself. If you asked me in January whether I had a healthy diet, I would have said yes, but, in hindsight, it could have been better. Since my surgery, I have read a range of books and articles on diet and the prevention of cancer. Some are worthwhile, while others advocate measures of such an extreme nature that I feel my life would be hardly worth living if I adhered to them. When you realise cancer is not just a disease but also a business, you can quickly discard the nutty stuff and, instead, dwell on what's right for you.
The best book I have read is called Anticancer by David Servan-Schreiber. A doctor who had brain cancer and recovered, he recommends the tried-and-trusted methods of chemotherapy and radiotherapy. Once the treatment is over, however, he suggests you take your life into your own hands, change your diet and pack your body with as much goodness as possible. I've bought myself a masticating juicer and have started downing green vegetables, wheatgrass and fruit, while omitting white bread and sugary treats. I'm not saying this will prevent my cancer recurring, but already I feel the changes in my body. I require less sleep, have bundles of energy, and just feel brighter and more alert, even though I'm in the middle of radiotherapy treatment. I wish I had started this diet years ago.
A diagnosis of breast cancer is not a death sentence, but early detection is vital. If you notice any difference, however small, in your breasts or find a lump in your armpit, go to your GP without delay.
National Cancer Helpline 1800 200 700 www.cancer.ie