October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month and as about 3,600 women and almost 40 men are diagnosed with breast cancer in Ireland every year, the Irish Cancer Society is urging everyone to “care for your pair” by doing regular self-examinations, knowing what feels right and seeking advice if any concerns.
Olivia Nolan did just this when she noticed she had an inverted nipple and then after further self-examination detected some “hard tissue” around the right breast. A committed swimmer, she didn’t consider for a moment that it might be cancer, but after visiting her GP in August of last year, she was then referred to Beaumont Hospital for further tests.
“I received a call with an appointment for the breast clinic, just a week after seeing my GP,” says the 49 year old. “Due to Covid, I had to attend the clinic alone, and after an examination I was sent for my very first mammogram. It hurt a lot on my right breast but not at all on the left and it was at that point that I started to think the worst. After waiting for a while, I was called for another mammogram on my right breast as they said the first one wasn’t sufficient.
“After that, I had an ultrasound and was asked if they could go ahead with a biopsy straight away. This shocked me and added to my concern that it might be something sinister. I was shaken, weak and faint after the procedure and found it very difficult to make my way back to the breast clinic, but a nurse spotted me, brought me to a chair and gave me a glass of water. My husband was waiting outside and he knew by the look of me that there was something serious up. We had to wait a week for the results but didn’t speak to anyone about it, except for my sea-swimming pals as I couldn’t swim for a few days after the biopsy and felt I could confide in them. They were all so supportive and positive and hoped for me that it wasn’t cancer, although none of us ever said the word.”
Nolan was eventually diagnosed with cancer in the right breast and was told that she would need surgery and treatment but that she had a very good chance of recovery.
“My husband came to the appointment with me and we sat with the consultant surgeon who broke the news straight away,” she says. “She told me that I had cancer but that they were going to remove it, and I was to make sure I lived my life until I was 100. I have reminded myself of these strong and positive words on several occasions since. I was told that I would start chemotherapy in the following week or so, and that would be followed by a mastectomy and reconstruction surgery, and then radiotherapy. The consultant explained that I should have it all behind me within a year.
“I had appointments for the following four days in a row: CT scan, bone scan, an appointment with my oncologist and then an education day for chemotherapy in the Bon Secours hospital, so it all happened very quickly. I started chemotherapy a few days later, which was AC-T — one of the stronger doses of chemo which knocks you for six. I was very sick after the first one so the team decided to increase my anti-sickness medication and put me on steroids — these really helped.
“I finished my chemotherapy in February this year, then six weeks later I had a mastectomy, DIEP reconstruction and full axillary clearance of my right arm. The results of the surgery were that my tumour had reduced significantly in size; however, as there were still cancer cells in a lot of the lymph nodes and because of this I have to go through six more months of chemotherapy — as a type of insurance, I suppose — to make sure that the cancer doesn’t come back. I was asked if I would participate in a clinical trial and as it is my second time around, and I know what to expect, I decided that I would put myself forward for it. So I was selected to get the trial drug and am currently now on this new treatment.”
Olivia, who is married to Francis, says while she has been through a very tough time over the past year, she is out the other side and would advise others to try to be as positive as possible. And if anyone is at all worried, to seek medical advice as soon as they can.
“The whole thing was totally terrifying as I imagined the worst from the start,” she says. “The only person I knew who had gone through chemotherapy was my brother-in-law who had leukaemia, and he was very very sick on it, but myself and my husband decided to focus on getting me through it and we tried to stay as positive as we could.
“I was told that my cancer was in early stages but that there were cancer cells present in my lymph nodes in my right arm also. But getting the chemotherapy started quickly meant that they were stopping the cancer from travelling via the lymph nodes to the rest of my body.
“I would say to anyone who has just been diagnosed that it’s important to stay positive and active. When I was going through my chemotherapy the country was going through the Covid pandemic, and it was winter, so it was a recipe for spending time at home alone. However, I didn’t let that happen; I went to the beach as often as I could, most days really, and continued to sea swim as long as I could. I also kept in touch with friends and organised to meet up in outdoor places for coffee and a chat — I filled my diary each week with as much as I could physically manage.
“People tend to be afraid to contact you or ask you to meet up when you’re going through this as they expect that you won’t be up to it. So it’s important that you reach out to your friends and family to organise to meet up and don’t wait around for them to contact you.
“And I would advise anyone who suspects that something is different, even if they can’t feel it, to go to their GP and get it checked out. It will be a worthwhile check as it’s amazing how successful the treatments are these days.”
Aoife McNamara, education and engagement manager at the Irish Cancer Society, agrees and says it is vital for both men and women to be breast aware and do self-checks regularly.
“Always speak to your GP if you notice anything unusual, as the earlier you are diagnosed the more treatment options are available to you, including surgery, radiotherapy, chemotherapy and hormone therapy,” she says.
To support vital breast cancer research and free care, counselling and transport for breast cancer patients, host a Big Pink Breakfast for your friends, family and colleagues.
· Breast cancer is the most common cancer in women in Ireland.
· About 3,5600 women and 37 men are diagnosed with it each year.
· Nine out of 10 breast changes won’t turn out to be breast cancer.
· The majority of people diagnosed with breast cancer are over the age of 50.
· Most breast cancers are diagnosed at an earlier stage.
· It is normal for your breasts to change throughout your monthly menstrual cycle and over your lifetime. But it’s important to go to your GP if you have any symptoms and get them checked out.
• A change in size or shape of your breast such as one breast becoming larger than the other.
• A change in the skin such as puckering, ridges or dimpling (like orange peel) or redness.
• A change in the direction or shape of your nipple, especially if it sinks into your breast or becomes irregular in shape.
• An unusual discharge (liquid) from one or both of your nipples.
• A change in the skin on or around the nipple such as a rash or flaky or crusted skin.
• Swelling in your breast or armpit or around your collarbone.
• A lump or thickening in your breast.
• Constant pain in one part of your breast or armpit.
• Soreness or warmth (inflammatory breast cancer).
• A red scaly rash on one nipple, which may itch or burn (Paget’s disease of the breast).
• Breast pain alone is rarely a symptom of breast cancer.
For more information visit cancer.ie