‘Breast cancer taught me to let go of minor irritations’

Ann Harney was 50 years old and in excellent health when she accidentally discovered a lump in her breast one Friday morning in February 2006.

Everything had been going really well for the mother of three grown up children who lives in Knocknacarra.

A former care worker she had gone back to college and graduated with an honours BA degree in sociology, politics and archaeology from NUI Galway in 2003. She was half way through completing her application for a master’s degree when she learned she had breast cancer.

“I found the lump by accident. I got out of bed at 9.30am that Friday morning as happy as Larry. Somehow my hand accidentally brushed the base of my right breast and I found this quite small, flat grainy type of lump. By 10.15am I was in my GP’s surgery. I went with an open mind, I’m a real optimist.”

Anne’s GP arranged for her to have a mammogram at the Bon Secours Hospital and to see a consultant there.

“I got confirmation that evening. I was very lucky [ie, swift diagnosis]. I met Professor Michael Kerin, professor of surgery at University Hospital Galway - he fitted me in that evening as he was doing a clinic. He told me the lump was cancerous but it been caught in time. He told me I’d live to be an old lady.”

Became energised

Her reaction was not “Why me?’ but “Why not me?” she says.

“I was scared waiting for the results of the mammogram and the biopsy was challenging. But my immediate reaction on being told I had breast cancer was the adrenaline started. I became energised to get well.”

Anne believes the lump had been there for about 18 months. She did not carry out breast self examinations so shudders to think what would have happened had she not accidentally discovered it.

“Mine was a grade one cancer. By me acting on it straight away I saved my life. I’d love women not to be scared to do it [report suspicious lumps straight away].”

Professor Kerin recommended surgery to remove the lump and surrounding tissue.

“All I wanted was to get it done straight away. When diagnosed with cancer I feel you need to get on with it. My children were then aged 23 to 27 years and I was wondering when I would tell them and how. The word cancer scares people. I decided from the start there would be no lies, no games, the truth would be up-front.

“They were very worried as was my husband. It was much later when I found out exactly how devastated he was, he thought I was going to die.”

Positive attitude

Anne believes her positive attitude helped her cope with the worrying time that followed. She took her consultant at his word and firmly believed she would beat this cancer. She says she was selective about the information she sought about her condition. “I had as much as I needed.”

“Surgery happened 10 days later. I did begin to tell people, I’m the sort of person who needs to talk, to share worries. I got great support from my friends. I know of all the cancers to get it is the best [in the sense that] the most research has been done and it’s very well advanced in treatment. I trusted the medical people and the system. I had nothing negative to say, everyone I met was fantastic. Waiting in the waiting rooms is so cruel but when you meet the medical person it is fantastic.”

Within three days of being diagnosed Anne was admitted to UHG for surgery. “The hardest part of going into hospital is you are hoping and praying you will get a bed. You have to phone up the night before to see if you get a bed. I had surgery to remove the lump and a few lymph nodes. Then I was two weeks waiting for the results. When I went back I was told there was ‘a bit of a fly in the ointment’. It [the cancer[ had spread to my lymph nodes. So I was back in March for more surgery to remove them.”

Horrendous day

She was advised to have chemotherapy and radiotherapy. “My biggest fear was not that I might die but that I would lose my hair. It is an important part of me.”

As Anne grappled with this worry the interviews for the master’s degree she so badly wanted were taking place at NUI Galway. She was called for interview and attended.

She describes the day she began her chemotherapy treatment as “the most devastating, scary and horrendous day of my life”.

“I was shocked at the way the nurses dressed, they were gowned up and had big, thick gloves. That said to me ‘This stuff is so toxic’. They hooked it up and I will never forget the sadness I felt. I was trying to figure out how I could look at it as a friend not an enemy. It took me until my second or third treatment to find an image - I imagined it as a swat team - the best police team - who were shooting all round them for the greater good. They killed the bad but some good, too.

“I was lucky in that I never got sick from the treatment. I was so so tired though. On the 16th day I began to lose my hair. It was very dramatic, a clump of it came out. I got my head shaved and wore a wig.”

When a social worker came to see her in hospital she enquired about attending a breast cancer support group meeting. She was shocked to learn there was none locally.

“There was one in Athenry and Tuam but none in the city. I was very shocked and disappointed. I knew it would be helpful for me going through this journey.”

Harrowing decision

Later as she continued with her recovery she made setting up such a group a priority.

When she was offered a place on the university masters degree course she “laughed and cried”. She accepted it and began in early September while still receiving radiotherapy. However, she decided to leave the course in October as everything became too much for her.

“I was running across to the hospital for radiotherapy between lectures. The hospital and university staff were wonderful but I decided I was not up to it. It was a very harrowing decision leaving college as it was something I wanted so badly.”

Today, Anne is feeling very well. She appreciates the simple things in life more and no longer lets herself get dragged down by minor irritations or pointless anger.

“I’ve let go of all of that.”

Launch of city breast cancer support group

Anne Harney and four other women who have had breast cancer are setting up a breast cancer support group in the city called Breast Life.

“We are ordinary local women who during our treatment would have liked to be part of a support group where men and women with breast cancer could have come together and shared their experiences,” explains Anne.

“We have received great support and encouragement from lnis Aoibhinn [Cancer Care West], the Breast Clinic at UHG, the National Breast Cancer Research Institute, Athenry Cancer Support Group and the Irish Cancer Society.”

The group’s inaugural meeting will be addressed by Professor Michael Kerin, Professor of Surgery at UHG, on Tuesday December 2 at The Ardilaun at 8pm.

Support meetings will take place on the third Thursday of every month with the initial meetings taking place in Inis Aoibhinn, Costello Road, Shantalla at 8pm on Thursdays January 15 and February 19.

The aim of the group is to create an informal, confidential space for men and women at all stages of their breast cancer journey to come together and support each other, she says.

“It will be free and people can attend as seldom or as often as they wish. It is also hoped that there will be invited speakers of interest from time.”

For further information telephone (091 ) 545000 (9am to 5pm Monday to Friday ).

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