You have to be as calm as possible

Tue, May 29, 2012, 01:00

MY HEALTH EXPERIENCE:It was a big surprise that I didn’t get breast cancer sooner

CANCER IS in my family. My mother died of pre-menopausal breast cancer in 1985. She got cancer first at 39 when I was 17 and the oldest of four children.

She had what was called the “cure” back then. She had five good years before the cancer came back when she was 46, and she died a year later.

Where there is bereavement relatively early in life, you get copped on to the physical and medical realities quite quickly.

My grandmother died of cancer and my cousin developed pre-menopausal breast cancer in her 30s. She is hale and hearty five years later.

To me it was a big surprise that I didn’t get pre-menopausal breast cancer sooner. I knew the texture on my breasts had changed last summer. There was some puckering, but there was no lump. I was so cancer-aware and breast-aware. I’d gone for regular mammograms and knew there were different types of symptoms.

It took the whole summer for it to dawn on me that there might be something wrong. I had been aware of niggling things such as scratching, but they seemed to me to be incredibly minor. In retrospect I could pick out a few things, but they were gone in an instant.

It was only when a colleague of mine went off sick that I realised I needed to do something. My GP sent me to the breast clinic in St Vincent’s but it wasn’t as if it was an emergency. Nevertheless, I was feeling uneasy. I had sleepless nights.

In between going to the GP and my diagnosis, I chaired a meeting for the Irish Cancer Society. It was all about hard-core symptoms and side effects. When I got the laboratory results from St Vincent’s Hospital, everybody was 99 per cent certain it was cancer.

I have four children, David (23), Megan and Jack (18) and Ella (11). I told my older children straight after I came back from the breast clinic. I wanted them to understand.

As somebody who has got children, my concern was to try to deal with the illness in a way that could show them the positive side and how to cope. You have to be as calm as possible.

It is manageable so long as you don’t have to tell them that you are not going to be around for much longer. Sadly people have to do that every day of the week.

I was offered a trial by Prof John Crown. I accepted straight away. He told me I was Her2 positive (over-expression of a protein which causes breast cancer cells to grow quicker) which can be treated with Herceptin. I was also oestrogen-positive, which was driving the cancer.

Most women who are Her2 are eligible for these trials.

He offered the trial drug Lapatinib which is now available for early-stage breast cancer. It is taken orally. I took that along with Herceptin which is administered intravenously with two conventional chemotherapy drugs.

When you are on chemotherapy, it is like a cycle. You have 10 days going downhill – you start getting sicker and then you have a peak of sickness. After that your system comes back up. Each session leaves you a little bit more drained. The chemotherapy went on from the middle of October to the end of January. There were days that were really terrible.

After I was finished chemotherapy, I had to face into the reality of a mastectomy. A lumpectomy wasn’t an option following the MRI scans which found a bigger tumour. That was hard-core.

In the days before I had the mastectomy, I interviewed Dr Dennis Slamon, part of the team that developed Herceptin, and the neurologist Prof Orla Hardiman for the One on One programmes.

We spoke about a lot of philosophical stuff relating to health, so it stopped me feeling like a victim, and that’s really important. Even if you have cancer, you still have to find ways to go on feeling like you.

I was more upset about the prospect of losing my breasts than the reality, though the reality is not very nice. I’m going to have reconstruction as soon as possible, though it may take six to 12 months. It is a process. It is not like Jordan, who goes in for an operation and there she is.

The surgery effectively took away whatever cancer was in my body. I’m cancer-free at the moment. I hope not to have cancer for a very long time, maybe for the rest of my life. The radiotherapy and Herceptin and the anti-oestrogens I will be on for five years are for prevention.

When I made the announcement on Morning Ireland in October, I tried to keep it as low-key as possible. It was as brief and as unemotional as I could make it.

I didn’t want to make a grand announcement that I had cancer.

I was stunned by the reaction from people in all walks of life, all walks of politics; a lot of it was incredibly personal. There was one brilliant lady who wrote in after I did an interview with Michael Somers and Mary O’Rourke for the One on One programmes.

I realised when I interviewed Michael Somers that my top was a bit low-cut. I remember watching that programme when I was sick as a dog, puking into the bowl, and saying to myself, “Jesus, I had a fine pair – I could have got them out more.”

Afterwards, [another] woman, who signed herself ‘Catholic mother-of-four’, wrote in to complain about my cleavage.

I never saw the letter because they (in RTÉ) were afraid I’d be really upset, but I wish she’d known how sentimental I had been about that bit of cleavage that I don’t have anymore. I got a laugh out of that.

When I was really sick, I never watched or listened to any current affairs, nor did I read a newspaper. My brain couldn’t go there.

In my bad days I used to say, “give me rubbish”. It was The Real Housewives of Orange County, Dallas and Judge Judy for me. There really is a point to daytime television. Loads of people need it.

I hope to return to Morning Ireland in the late summer after I’ve finished the radiotherapy and my twins have completed the Leaving Certificate.

I have been a passionate gardener for most of my life.

When you are doing chemotherapy, you cannot do gardening because of the possibility of picking an infection up from the soil. I got all my tulip bulbs and daffodils in before I started chemotherapy.

I knew that in the spring, when I had finished the chemotherapy and surgery and my hair was starting to grow back, that they would be coming into flower.

To me that was really important all through the winter knowing these pots, which were as bare and looked as sad as me at the time, would be full of flowers.

That was kind of my metaphor – it is the thing for me to hang on to.

Gardening is a huge normaliser and distraction. I look so sad, but the plants look so beautiful.

I’m really pleased to be invited back to do a programme on Bloom with Claire Byrne.

I will be doing inserts about the show gardens. I’m interested in the gardens which have an illness theme.

To me, Bloom is always a terrific story of optimism and perseverance.

Áine Lawlor is co-presenting Bloom on RTÉ 1 on Friday at 7.30pm

In conversation with Ronan McGreevy

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