March 8th is International Women’s Day and while the theme this year is focusing on gender equality, equity, and inclusion, it is also a time to look at the health issues which predominantly affect women.
One of these include breast cancer, which, with an average of 3,350 women diagnosed each year in Ireland (compared to around 30 men), it is the most common form of cancer affecting females in this country. According to the World Health Organisation, in 2020 alone almost 2.3 million women were diagnosed globally with breast cancer, and it accounted for 685,000 deaths.
And at the end of that same year, there were 7.8 million women alive who were diagnosed with breast cancer in the past five years, making it the world’s most prevalent cancer.
Cristina Loiola is one of those women who has been through the ordeal of developing breast cancer, and although she endured a terrible time, thanks to a routine visit to her doctor who referred her for a breast check, she has survived the disease.
The 42-year-old, who is originally from São Paulo in Brazil moved to Ireland in 2017 in a bid to improve her command of the English language. She had no symptoms whatsoever when she went home to visit her sister, who coincidentally, had recently been through cancer treatment – but decided to make an appointment with her GP while she was there. It was fortunate that she did.
“I am a chemist, with two Master of Science degrees (chemistry and business administration) and used to work for a large European company in Brazil,” she says. “I decided to take a career break in 2017 and moved to Dublin to improve my English. I had started my PhD in 2015, which is currently on hold, but initially while studying, I worked as a child minder and cook.
“Then in 2018, I met an amazing Irish man, who is now my best friend, my partner, and my love – so decided to stay here and in 2019, I started working for Takeda, a pharmaceutical company in Grange Castle, Dublin, and in December 2020, I went to Brazil to visit my lovely older sister, who had intestinal cancer with metastasis on the liver (thankfully she has since made a complete recovery). Although I had no symptoms and no sign that anything was wrong, whenever I go back home, I usually go to my doctor for a check-up and this time was no different.”
Cristina didn’t for a moment think that she had any health issues, but to her horror she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She initially kept the devastating news to herself as she didn’t want to worry anyone.
“I discovered my breast cancer just four days before coming back to Ireland, so my sister and I were both sick at the same time. I decided not tell her until I had recovered, which was very hard and in fact didn’t tell any of my family except my brother.
'I was totally devastated, I didn't really believe it. I was very scared and didn't want to talk to anyone about it
“I never thought that something like this could be happening in my life and although I was totally devastated, I didn’t really believe it. I was very scared and didn’t want to talk to anyone about it, but a few days after getting back to Ireland, I told my lovely boyfriend, who was very affectionate and gave me all the support I needed. We contacted my GP here to arrange further consultations, but because of Covid restrictions at the time, I needed to quarantine.
“So having arrived back on January 20th, my first appointment was February 12th. The wait for the first few consultations and between appointments was the worst part as it seemed like we were getting worse news each time.”
Being told you have cancer is undoubtedly difficult for everyone, but to be going through treatment for a potentially life-threatening illness while living at the other side of the world from your family, must make the situation even harder to bear.
“My GP and I had discussed the possibility of me going privately, but she told me that St Vincent’s Hospital is a centre of excellence for breast cancer, so I was happy to go there on the public system,” says Cristina. “Right from the start, the team was excellent and I had a single point of contact who was able to guide me through everything and always available to answer my questions. She knew that English wasn’t my first language, so we often communicated by email, which was a great help.
“At first it was thought that my treatment would involve a lumpectomy with radiotherapy, but I was then given the worse news that I would need a mastectomy followed by a reconstruction.”
'Because of Covid restrictions, my partner couldn't accompany me past the hospital reception desk on the morning of my operation'
This devastating news was made harder by the fact that restrictions were in place due to the pandemic, so after surgery, Cristina remained in hospital on her own as visitors weren’t allowed. “I got through everything by just focusing on each stage that came up, but because of Covid restrictions, my partner couldn’t accompany me past the hospital reception desk on the morning of my operation and wasn’t allowed to visit me when I woke up after surgery,” she says. “In fact, he couldn’t visit me for an entire week, until I was collected on my discharge day.
“This was really hard as he had been with me at every other time, including when I was receiving the bad news about my illness from the consultant. But I had support from Arc [the cancer support centre], who provided me with counselling services, which really helped and offered a lot of support.”
Although still emotionally scarred from her experience, Cristina has come through the treatment and surgery and says it has made her more aware of the need to live a healthy life. And she would advise anyone else who has any concerns to seek medical advice as soon as possible, as early detection can make all the difference.
“Since my diagnosis, I am much more conscious of my health and fitness,” she says. “I have taken up swimming again and am also jogging and doing Pilates. I make sure to eat healthily but I try not to obsess about things, and I am happy to be back at work and be with my friends.
“I have discovered that cancer is no longer the death sentence it once was – it is, of course, serious but the science has improved enormously and there are now a huge number of amazing treatments and therapies which have been developed in just the last few years.
'The hardest part is dealing with the waits between appointments, but once you have a plan of action it is much easier to deal with'
“I would say to anyone who has just been diagnosed with cancer, that it’s important to know that you will be surrounded by an incredible team who want you to get better – everyone wants you to succeed. The hardest part is dealing with the waits between appointments, but once you have a plan of action it is much easier to deal with.
“Also, no matter where you are from or what your first language is, you need to work with your GP to regularly monitor your health. Early detection is key to success.”
Breast cancer warning signs
– A change in breast size or shape. It could be that one breast has become larger.
– Changes in the nipple – in direction or shape, pulled in or flattened nipple changes on or around the nipple.
– Rash, flaky, or crusted skin changes in the skin – dimpling, puckering or redness, 'orange peel' appearance of the skin caused by unusually enlarged pores, swelling in your armpit or around your collarbone.
– One breast unusually lower than the other, with nipples at different levels.
– An enlargement of the glands.
– A lump, any size, or thickening in your breast.
– Constant pain in one part of your breast or armpit.