‘I am lucky. I check my breasts regularly and found a lump’
‘It’s okay to be scared, and it’s okay to ask for help. I know that recovery can be around the corner, so try not to worry as your future may be a bright one’
Caitríona Plunkett: “Don’t feel like you have to do this on your own because you don’t. You are never alone”
Despite advances in medical science vastly improving the outcome for cancer patients, being told you have the “big C” is still among the most frightening thing anyone can hear.
However, it is no longer the automatic death sentence it was for many people, and thanks to the dedication and vocation of those at the front line and in cancer research, more and more patients are recovering from the disease and going on to live long and healthy lives.
Caitríona Plunkett knows only too well the devastation a cancer diagnosis can have on physical and mental health.
In 2016, not long after her 35th birthday, she was diagnosed with breast cancer after finding a lump in her right breast. Now 38, the Dublin woman says she had a difficult journey but is out the other side, and would advise everyone to be vigilant and seek medical advice if they are worried about any suspicious lumps because early intervention means a better chance of a future.
Since the Covid-19 pandemic, there has been much concern about people not getting checked out for serious conditions such as breast cancer.
The breast screening service is “paused” at the moment, though the HSE’s advice is never to ignore symptoms, and, if you have any, to contact your GP immediately.
Last week, the Irish Cancer Society said a plan for resuming cancer screening services “must be outlined urgently”.
Meanwhile, cancer services are continuing, says Dr Triona McCarthy, consultant in public health medicine with the HSE’s National Cancer Control Programme. There were some temporary changes as services adapted to, say, a switch of location or staffing issues, but all those involved in cancer care have worked together “to minimise disruption”.
Cancer care “has been protected from day one, people have continued to have chemotherapy and radiation”.
“I am lucky that I check my breasts regularly and found a lump at an early stage,” says Plunkett, who has two children, Corinne (12) and Gavin (9). “I didn’t think too much about it initially, but no matter how much I prodded and poked it, it didn’t go away. So I went to see my doctor a few weeks later and thankfully he was really pro-active. In fact, I would say that he saved my life. He referred me for a triple assessment, and that same week I had a mammogram, ultrasound and biopsy.”
When Plunkett, who is married to Conor, was told she had cancer, she was devastated but was also relieved to know what was wrong and what treatment she would need.
“Even though I was sort of expecting it, I burst into tears when I first heard the news as it was a huge shock. My first and main worry was the kids, and I was so terrified that I might not see them grow up, but the consultant reassured me that the team would work to cure me.
“The next few weeks were an emotional rollercoaster, as after talking to the surgeon I then met with the oncologist who went through the treatment plan – I was to have 16 rounds of chemotherapy as the cancer was triple negative, which is very aggressive, and then I would have to have a mastectomy and reconstruction. I knew I had a tough treatment to get through, and that the side effects would not just affect me but also my family and children.”
Throughout her ordeal, Plunkett, who is doing a masters in psychology, says her husband was a tower of strength both during and after treatment. “Having the mastectomy was a no-brainer for me. All I cared about was just doing what was best for me and so I could see my kids grow up and grow old with my husband and best friend Conor.
“His support was unwavering. We were always close, but going through cancer brought us even closer together. I also had so much wonderful support from family and friends, and from the Irish Cancer Society support groups Daffodil Centres and Nurseline.”
The mother of two has completely recovered from her ordeal, but says she feels like a different person to what she was before the disease. “People often ask me if I have recovered fully, and I am physically better even though I don’t want to tempt fate by saying the cancer is gone, but I don’t feel the same as I did before.
“I really believe that cancer changes you both mentally and physically. I definitely get more fatigued now than I did in the past, and while it has improved greatly from what it was straight after my treatment, I still do get very tired from time to time. I also feel that it has played havoc with my hormones as I suffer from hot flushes as well.
“But having said that, I am back leading a full life and try to incorporate exercise into my routine as much as possible as it is vital for both mental and physical health. And on that note, I also feel as though my outlook has changed since I have had cancer as I don’t take anything for granted and am so grateful for everyone and everything in my life.”
One of the things which has positively influenced Plunkett’s recovery is the role she has undertaken with the Irish Cancer Society (ICS) to help other people who have recently been diagnosed with cancer.
“I have been volunteering with the ICS for some time, and I really love it – in fact I’d say it’s the best thing I have ever done. It is so wonderful to be able to support other survivors, and while it may seem as though I am giving back, I actually feel like I am getting just as much from it as it is a privilege to talk to people who are going through cancer because I was in the same boots as they were at one point.
“I feel that they can talk to me and know I won’t judge them. I might not even have any answers for them, but because I have been through the same thing they know they can offload on me and sometimes just saying something out loud makes it a little easier to bear.”
From experience, the Dublin woman would advise other cancer patients to accept all offers of support and make sure to be kind to themselves. “I would advise others [going through the same thing] to ask questions and get involved with your treatment plan as you’ll feel more in control – but don’t Google your diagnosis, just trust your medical team.
“Also, I would encourage them to seek support and take any help which is offered. There is so much out there from friends and family, and also Nurseline, the counselling services from the ICS and also the drivers and Daffodil Centres. Don’t feel like you have to do this on your own because you don’t, you are never alone.
“I know it is a very frightening experience, and while it is important to stay positive don’t just plaster on a smile when you are not feeling it inside. It’s okay to be scared, and it’s okay to ask for help. I’ve been there, I know what it’s like, and I know that recovery can be around the corner. So try not to worry as your future may be a bright one.”
About Breast Cancer
Every year, about 2,600 women are diagnosed with breast cancer and about people die from the disease.
– One in 10 women in Ireland will get breast cancer .
– It is the second most common cancer in women in Ireland (skin cancer being the first).
– The numbers of breast cancer survivors are increasing, with over 80 per cent of those with a breast cancer diagnosis now living five years and beyond.
– It is most common in women over the age of 50, but you can get it at a younger age.
– Men can also get breast cancer, but it is very rare.
– The cause of breast cancer is not fully known, but there are a number of risk factors; the first is gender as it is more common in women, getting older is also a factor , as is having a strong family history of the disease.
– Certain benign breast conditions cause a higher risk of breast cancer and women on HRT also have an increased risk.
– The Irish Cancer Society says there is also a small increase in risk in women on the contraceptive pill, those who had their first period before the age of 12, those who have a late menopause (over the age of 55) and those who have not had children or have given birth to their first child in later life.
– Reduce your risk of breast cancer by being a healthy weight, being active, limiting alcohol, quitting smoking and breastfeeding your baby for at least six months if possible.
– A lump in either breast.
– Discharge from either of your nipples (which may be streaked with blood)
– A lump or swelling in either of your armpits.
– A change in the size or shape of one or both breasts.
– Dimpling on the skin of your breasts.
– A rash on or around your nipple.
– A change in the appearance of your nipple, such as becoming sunken into your breast.