Breast cancer: ‘I’d had the warning; you still don’t think it will happen to you’
Edel Cannon is taking part in the 2019 Great Pink Run to raise money for cancer research
Edel Cannon: ‘At the moment I’m alive and feeling well.’ Photograph: Peter Barnes
When accountant and mother-of-three Edel Cannon discovered that she had the BRCA1 gene, she knew her risk of developing breast or ovarian cancer was very high – in fact she recalls, the chances of her developing one of these conditions stood at 85 per cent.
After the discovery in 2010, Edel was monitored closely and on a regular basis for several years.
Then, in November 2016 came the first blow. Following her yearly MRI, Edel was diagnosed with Triple Negative Breast Cancer, a sub-type of breast cancer which normally occurs in younger women between the ages of 20 and 40, and for which the only standard of care is surgery, radiation and chemotherapy.
When I found out about the recurrence I was initially devastated. My husband and I were like zombies the next few days
Although she was well aware of her risk, says Edel, the news was deeply distressing. “It was unbelievable. I was really shocked. It had become normal to go for my annual MRI and see my doctor every six months. It was a complete blow even though I’d had the warning; you still don’t think it will happen to you.”
Overnight, her life changed as she took leave from her job as an accountant – although she now works part-time, she has not returned to full-time employment – and began a series of scans.
“Waiting for the results of those was very stressful,” she recalls. Next came six months of intravenous chemotherapy – during which she lost her hair, eyelashes and eyebrows.
A mastectomy of her left breast and lymph nodes took place in May, 2017, followed by 25 radiation treatments over July and August.
Six months of oral chemotherapy began in September 2017.
Edel, who has a 21-year-old son and two daughters aged five and seven, had her second mastectomy and reconstruction at the end of August 2018. She thought that would be the end of her treatment. But just last June came another devastating blow – the young mother learned that her cancer had now spread to multiple places in her body.
“When I found out about the recurrence I was initially devastated. My husband and I were like zombies the next few days; in complete shock,” she recalls.
Edel (39) is currently pinning her hopes on a new treatment, a tablet which can be taken at home and does not have the debilitating side-effects which are a part of chemotherapy. The medication is so new that it has not yet been fully approved for use in Ireland. However, her oncologist successfully applied directly to the manufacturers to get it for her.
“At the moment I’m alive and feeling well, thankfully and my oncologist is hopeful that this treatment is my best hope so I have to put all my hope in that and enjoy life and my beautiful family, every day.”
She plans – along with some 9,500 men women and children – to participate in this weekend’s fund-raising Great Pink Run with Glanbia (see greatpinkrun.ie).
The event is organised by Breast Cancer Ireland, a charity which raises money to support of pioneering research into and awareness of, breast cancer in Ireland. October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and this year’s Great Pink Run takes place across two sites in Ireland and, also and for the first time, in the US.
Since 2011 when the event began, more than 35,000 women, men and children have crossed the finish-line in Ireland, and the event has raised in the region of €1.7 million, according to Aisling Hurley, Chief Executive of Breast Cancer Ireland. Last year more than 8,000 people participated in the Run, which took place in Dublin and Kilkenny and raised €500,000 research into a drug-related therapy for Triple Negative Breast Cancer at Queen’s University Belfast.
This year’s event began in Chicago on October 5th with the runners led by Sonia O’ Sullivan. The Irish Olympian’s sister-in-law, a mother to a young family, was diagnosed two years ago with breast cancer.
Edel will, along with some 6,500 other people, participate in the second phase of the run at Dublin’s Phoenix Park
Chicago was chosen as the event’s first overseas location primarily because it is home to one of the country’s best and most progressive breast research centres – The Ludwig Breast Cancer Centre at the University of Chicago, which has collaborated with Breast Cancer Ireland-funded research laboratories in the past.
It is proposed that funds raised from this year’s event – organisers, says Hurley, conservatively hope the 2019 Run will raise €600,000 – will continue to support an international collaborative research programme into metastatic disease.
While the incidence of breast cancer in Ireland is increasing, with more than 3,000 women diagnosed annually, statistics suggest that morbidity and recurrence rates are reducing.
However, figures show that some 30 per cent of breast cancers will return. Months or years after the original diagnosis and treatment, cancer cells can break away and metastasise from the original tumour in the breast and travel to other parts of the body through the bloodstream or the lymphatic system.
Research into metastatic breast cancer has been limited in the past, leaving these women with few options and the prospect of more surgery, radiation and non-specific treatments, as their only option, if the cancer returns.
However, a new enzyme-focused treatment is currently proving very successful in targeting enzymes which are important in cell division and can interrupt and inhibit the growth of cancer cells.
When used in combination with hormone therapy, it can extend survival in patients who previously failed standard endocrine treatment.
Chairman of Breast Cancer Ireland, Breast and Endocrine Surgeon, Prof Arnie Hill is seeing positive results of this new-enzyme focused treatment. He is working closely with the Endocrine Oncology Research Group, based in the BCI labs of the RSCI, headed up by Professor Leonie Young on exploring how these inhibitors can provide a lifeline for those whose cancers have returned.
In the meantime Edel will, along with some 6,500 other people, participate in the second phase of the run at Dublin’s Phoenix Park on Saturday which is being led by a host of well-known faces – including former international rugby player Shane Byrne, and TV broadcaster Elaine Crowley and social media and TV personality James Patrice.
The following day, Sunday , the run takes place in Kilkenny Castle Park where some 2,000 people are expected to participate – led by dietitian and TV personality Aoife Hearne and Newstalk’s Kieran Cuddihy.