Living well after breast cancer

Breast cancer survivor Gayle McDonagh urges women to be breast aware.

Breast cancer survivor Gayle McDonagh urges women to be breast aware.

Gayle McDonagh is a firm believer in giving back to the community. So, during October when the Irish Cancer Society runs its annual Cups against Breast Cancer fundraiser as part of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, she organises a coffee morning at her home in Co Galway.

"I did that for the last two years and we had a nice chat and cake," says the mother of three, two sons and a daughter ranging in age from 15 to 22 years, who lives in Abbey.

This year she planned to hold the event in her garden and had organised a gazebo. However, the tightening of Covid-10 restrictions meant that this was not possible so she set up an Irish Cancer Society (ICS ) fundraising page, ordered a lot of takeaway boxes online, and with the help of her neighbour began baking. She then delivered the apple pies, buns, flapjacks, and other delicious confectionery items to the delighted people who had make donations to the cancer organisation.

"I was hours in the car," she says, smilingly. But it was all worth it as the event, which took place last week, raised €1,250.

Gayle, who is originally from Derbyshire in England, was delighted with the response to the fundraiser. She knows more than most the importance of the services provided by the charity as she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2017 at the age of 49.

A fulltime carer for her now 19-year-old son who has autism and a learning disability, she was busy looking after her family at the time. Her eldest son was doing his Leaving Certificate and her youngest child, Melissa, was aged 12 and in fifth class.

It was May three years ago that Gayle noticed a puckering on her left breast. She knew instantly that something was wrong.

"I put off going to the doctor as my oldest son was doing his Leaving Cert. Later when I went to her I knew from her reaction that things weren't right. She referred me to BreastCheck straight away. I had a mammogram and then went to meet the breast surgeon. After that, I had a biopsy. They said it looked like cancer. I had to wait a week for the results to come back. It was the longest week of my life."

On edge

She vividly remembers the shock, the fear, the uncertainty, and the way thoughts about a worst case scenario would invade her mind.

"It really was a shock. I had a pain in my chest, my heart was beating so quickly. I didn't sleep or eat, I was pure on edge because I couldn't tell anybody, only my husband and my oldest son."

The shock was even greater because Gayle had never had any major illness previously and there was no history of breast cancer in her family.

The day she went to receive the results of the biopsy at University Hospital Galway, she and her husband, Declan, were brought upstairs to a "nice room with sofas". "I said to him: 'Why is he [the breast cancer surgeon] bringing us here?'" She had a bad feeling. Mr Ray McLaughlin, a consultant general surgeon, accompanied by a nurse, both of whom were "very nice and very positive", then spoke to her." She was told she had Stage 2 breast cancer.

"He went through everything and said that the vast majority of women with my type of cancer go on to live normal lives. He gave me an option of which route to go through for treatment - mastectomy, chemotherapy, or radiotherapy and in what order. He said if I went for chemotherapy first it could shrink the tumour so you lose less of the breast. I opted for that and began treatment in the August at Portiuncula Hospital in Ballinasloe."

She had eight rounds of chemotherapy, with the sessions taking place every second week for four months. "This was a nurse-led service and she was so kind and so lovely. I would go in at 9am and be out by 2pm." Gayle says losing her hair was both physically and emotionally painful. "It was coming out in clumps and it felt like someone was pulling it out. You feel you've lost your whole identity, too. The first chemotherapy session wasn't too bad but it builds up. By the last one I was very, very tired and food didn't taste nice anymore. Everything tasted like cotton wool. I wasn't very sick because I got anti-nausea medication."

The tiredness is something that has remained with Gayle. "Even now, I feel exhausted sometimes. It could hit you all of a sudden and you need to nap. My friend used to bring me for chemo and sometimes I would be fast asleep in the car returning from treatment. I remember the oncologist [Professor Maccon Keane] telling me you will feel very tired. He also said to go out and walk every day. He was very nice and very positive. He always checks up [at appointments] if I have been walking."

Gayle had a lumpectomy as a day procedure in November 2017 and began radiotherapy in February 2018. "Radiotherapy was a breeze. I felt fine and had no problems with it."

Supportive family

She says she is fortunate to have a very supportive family and friends. "My husband was great, and his family were great as well. My family are all in Derbyshire. My mum and dad came over a couple of times and my brother came over and drove me to and from radiotherapy."

She has great friends, also. One of them drove her to the hospital for chemotherapy, another made a hamper for her with socks, a fluffy jumper, CDs, books, hand cream, and puzzle books, others took her out for coffee.

While there were tearful times along her cancer journey, she knew there was always sunshine after the rain. She feels very well now except for occasional tiredness.

"My mentality is to get on with it. It's hard and there were times when I used to cry when I was by myself. Then I would say: 'Now, get on with it.' If you sit down and feel sorry for yourself it is not going to do you any good. The way I looked at it was that when one treatment is over you are a step closer to being finished."

She is very grateful to the staff at both University and Portiuncula Hospitals. "They were lovely and the care I received was brilliant."

Gayle says having had cancer has made her very aware of other people's struggles. "I haven't changed as a person but I would just be a little bit kinder and more understanding now. You don't know what people are going through, you don't know about their mental health. I'd be a little bit more patient too, I don't get involved in petty arguments. What I like to do now is to give back a little bit. I took part in the Women's Mini Marathon in Dublin in 2018 with my daughter, Melissa to raise funds for the Irish Cancer Society."

The charity offers an excellent service, she says. "It has a support line you can ring anytime. I went onto its website and there is information on the different types of cancer. You can download booklets and there are very informative podcasts. Everything is there, all the answers to the questions you forgot to ask at your hospital appointment. People can donate to the society through its website this October to support breast cancer services."

Her message to women is to be breast aware. "I would have been very conscious of checking myself and I would urge others to do the same. Don't be embarrassed. If you think anything is wrong, go to your doctor. It could be nothing. And if it is something, it is not the end of the world. Treatments are improving all the time."

Many younger women are being diagnosed with breast cancer, she says. "You become eligible for BreastCheck's screening programme at 50. However, I am on a Facebook support group and they had a poll which looked at the age of diagnosis and it is getting younger and younger. You are talking about women in their 30s."

What you can do to help the Irish Cancer Society

Rosemary Simmons, the national fundraising lead at the Irish Cancer Society, says 2020 has been a "very difficult year" for cancer patients and their families.

"The coronavirus brought additional anxieties and concerns and forced many to stay apart from family and friends at a time when they badly need emotional support," she says. "The services provided by the Irish Cancer Society are needed now, more than ever."

The charity had to cancel its pink ribbon street fundraiser due to Covid-19 restrictions. The pandemic has also meant that the organisation's traditional fundraisers which bring communities together cannot go ahead this year.

The society is appealing to the public to donate online at www.cancer.ie/donate or by calling 1850 60 60 60 to ensure it can continue to meet increased demand for support from people affected by breast cancer. "With your help we can be there to ensure no one has to face breast cancer alone."

• Anyone interested in holding a virtual coffee morning this month with family and friends to finance vital support services for breast cancer patients should register with the Irish Cancer Society to be part of its Cups Against Breast Cancer campaign.

Facts about breast cancer

Breast cancer affects more than 3,000 women and about 25 men each year in Ireland. It is more common in women over 50 years.

The condition is treated with surgery, radiotherapy, chemotherapy, hormone therapy, and other targeted therapies, depending on the type, according to the Irish Cancer Society.

The symptoms may include:

A change in size or shape of your breast such as one 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. However, the Irish Cancer Society says breast pain alone is rarely a symptom of breast cancer.

Soreness or warmth (inflammatory breast cancer ).

A red scaly rash on one nipple, which may itch or burn (Paget's disease of the breast ).

It is important to remember that nine out of 10 breast changes will not turn out to be breast cancer. However, it is important to contact your GP if you have any symptoms and get them checked out.

 

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