It was 2008 and life was good for Liagh, now 45. A financial services worker, she’d just returned to Ireland after several years in New Zealand.
Three weeks into her new job in Dublin, Liagh was in London on a business trip.
“It was exciting. I’d started a new job and I was in London, a city I love.”
On the day of her grim discovery, she’d enjoyed a meal with a former colleague. “I’d had a good day.” Back in the hotel bedroom, the last thing on her mind was being sideswiped by a health issue.
“I was in this gorgeous hotel bathroom, with lots of lighting and lots of mirrors, so I treated myself to a bath.” In New Zealand, Liagh had a breast scare, but the lump was benign. The radiologist had then explained the changes in breast tissue that might be problematic. Certain words had stuck with Liagh, including a detail about puckered skin.
“I was drying myself after the bath. Because of the light and the mirrors — and I wasn’t in my usual hurry, like I’d be after my morning shower — I noticed a slight puckering of the skin on my breast. I palpated it and felt something branch-like — there was nothing like it in the right breast.”
Liagh says she’s “not a panicker”, but a doer. “I found a GP in Dublin. She was calm, matter-of-fact, and referred me to St Vincent’s Hospital.
That’s when I entered the cancer machine.” Though not “massively intuitive”, Liagh felt the news wouldn’t be good.
“I didn’t tell anyone until I was diagnosed. I wanted the information clear in my head, so I could say to people: here’s what has happened and here’s what’s going to happen,” she says.
While this meant handling things alone, she says: “You handle it yourself anyway, even if you have friends, family, or partner — cancer’s a lonely place.” The cancer was “rather advanced, aggressive, and large”.
It had spread to her lymph nodes.
“They wanted to both shrink the tumour and halt its spread. There was no potential for breast conservation.
"I’m not a dramatic person, but when I heard the word ‘chemo’, I lost it. My only experience of people who’d had chemo were people who died. I thought ‘chemo’s for sick people’.
"I knew I had cancer, but I felt so well, it was so incongruous.” Liagh doesn’t use the word ‘sick’ to describe herself and she never says ‘my cancer’.
Since her New Zealand scare, she’d regularly checked her breasts and was perplexed that, seemingly out of nowhere, this tumour had come.
“It was a mixed type. I’d always had small breasts — the radiologist in New Zealand called them neat boobs. So, how did this monster of a tumour spring up like daisies? I’d seen nothing and suddenly I had this whopper.”
Four months of neoadjuvant chemotherapy — administered before surgery — worked. “I could feel the tumour shrinking. I wasn’t being Pollyanna. I got all my friends to feel my tumour. I said ‘this is going to be cut out of me soon.
I want you to know what it feels like’.” Liagh had surgery in October, 2008, involving mastectomy of the left breast and removal of all lymph nodes under the left arm. Then came “quite the cocktail” of treatment: chemo and radiation that winter. “That chemo was really an insurance policy.” She endured a “violent” menopause, due to the treatment.
“I’d looked into having my eggs frozen. I thought maybe I’d want to have children, after all this. I did the consultation, but it wasn’t really a priority. Because of my diagnosis, there just wasn’t time, so the decision was out of my hands. Then, when my treatment ended, my periods came back with a bang!”
Though the treatment has been successful and she’s cancer-free, Liagh continues to be monitored.
“I said to my consultant one day: ‘listen, when am I going to stop seeing you?’ He said ‘Liagh, we’re not [stopping]’. I suppose because my tumour was aggressive, oestrogen-positive and I’m still not perimenopausal.” With cancer, Liagh believes in being well-informed.
“I didn’t do the Dr Google websites. I didn’t torture myself with posts on Facebook, saying I shouldn’t have eaten mushrooms at seven. There’s a lot of craziness out there that isn’t for me.”
She calls cancer “the biggest, rudest interruption you could ever get”.
Originally from Cork, she has been head of underwriting for several companies, but even on returning from New Zealand, she’d wanted to change career. Cancer robbed that option.
“I needed routine, security,” she says.
Post-treatment, she didn’t want to make changes. “I thought ‘tóg go bog é — you’ve had enough drama’. We were also in mid-recession.” But when the opportunity arose, she grabbed it with both hands, switching from financial services to yoga instructor.
“I get to help other cancer patients, at ARC Cancer Support and Tallaght Cancer Support. I teach yoga otherwise, too, and I love it,” she says.
For Liagh, breast cancer meant the scales fell from her eyes. “I take pleasure in the small things: looking at the birds, a nice cup of coffee.”
Breast cancer survivor, Majella O’Donnell, is backing ‘Cups against cancer’, a new breast cancer campaign to fund more research.
She’s asking people to get their cups out for a good cause and host a coffee morning in October.
Eight women daily are diagnosed with breast cancer in Ireland (2,900 annually). Funds raised also go towards services to support those affected.
Sign up: www.cancer.ie/cupsagainstcancer. Speak to Cancer Nurse about breast cancer on 1800 200 700, email@example.com, or visit one of 13 Daffodil Centres in hospitals nationwide (email firstname.lastname@example.org).