Three cancer survivors say dying was not an option for them

As part our Breast Cancer Awareness Month coverage, we heard one woman’s personal account yesterday of her breast cancer hell. Today, Helen O’Callaghan talks to three survivors who are finding reason to be positive in the face of an unexpected diagnosis.

A breast cancer diagnosis is scary and life-changing, but an exhibition running in Dublin puts the spotlight on the positive: more women are surviving breast cancer than ever before.

According to the Marie Keating Foundation, over 28,000 women in Ireland have survived the disease. “A breast cancer diagnosis today isn’t the same as it was 15 years ago,” says Dr Cathy Kelly, consultant medical oncologist at Dublin’s Mater Hospital. “Our understanding of [it] has enabled us to treat it more appropriately and effectively, leading to better outcomes for patients.” The exhibition, ‘Out the Other Side: Stories of Breast Cancer Survival’, is a collection of individual stories and photographs of 10 Irish women who have survived the disease. It has been developed by Roche in partnership with the Marie Keating Foundation and will be in St Stephen’s Green park through October — breast cancer awareness month.

Each woman’s exhibit includes a personal experience of surviving breast cancer, a photograph of her as she is today and a photo that she feels represents her ‘survivorship milestone’ – what surviving breast cancer meant to her.

The photography was captured by Gerry Andrews, who lost his wife to breast cancer 11 years ago. “If she’d been diagnosed today, chances are — with huge advances in research and new medicines — she’d come out the other side,” he says. Here we profile three of the survivors.


Three cancer survivors say dying was not an option for them

Nicola Cahill was just after her 34th birthday last year when she realised the pain she’d been feeling in her right breast wasn’t due to a pulled muscle. “I’d come off the treadmill and it felt like my boob was on fire. I knew then something wasn’t right.” The Tallaght woman was diagnosed with aggressive breast cancer. It was oestrogen-positive so doctors used medication to induce early menopause. She had chemotherapy for four months, radiotherapy for more than six weeks and has had a double mastectomy.

Right from the start, Nicola got into survival mode. “My sister survived getting cancer five years ago. I’d seen her literally beat the odds. It’s not that I never felt fear. I just never said ‘am I going to die?’ I availed of counselling and the counsellor said ‘I’m not looking at someone depressed. I’m looking at someone who has lost a lot’. I took inspiration from that. I have lost a lot. I know I’ll never physically carry a child of my own. I come from a big family. I always hoped someday I’d meet somebody and have kids. That was difficult to accept.

“I used to be very active and played lots of sport. I’ll never be able to go back to being so active. For the reconstruction surgery they took a large graft from my back — it has limited me a lot.

“But I’ve gained a lot too. The doctors said it was rare to get cancer at my age. I met seven or eight girls in their 20s or 30s in the chemo ward of St James’s Hospital. There’s a group of seven of us who are now friends for life. We’re there for each other in the tough times and we go out and have fun together too.

“I have a couple of photos of me with my bald head and then another one of me six months later with hair. I look at those and I say to myself ‘I actually did this’. I meet people I haven’t seen in a while and they say ‘you look healthier, you look happier’.


Three cancer survivors say dying was not an option for them

Dublin mum Bernie Walsh was determined to beat breast cancer for her children’s sake. “I have two children. They’re adults — in their 20s — but they’re still my kids. I didn’t want them to have the special occasions of life without me. I thought I can’t leave them on their own,” says the 55-year-old, who was diagnosed in 2012.

She underwent two lumpectomy surgeries and eight weeks of chemotherapy, followed by 12 weeks of a second chemotherapy regime. A severe reaction to this saw her spend over a week in ICU. The chemotherapy was cancelled and she went on hormone therapy and seven weeks of radiotherapy. She finished treatment in September 2013.

Initially, on hearing the diagnosis, she felt terror. “This horrible feeling of terror — fear of the unknown — swept over me. My mind went into overdrive. People kept telling me what a strong person I am. And I thought ‘people see me as strong. I’m going to be strong. I’m going to get through this’. The only time I felt, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore’ was when I ended up in hospital after the chemo reaction.”

A member of the Coolmine Music Society for 16 years, it was when she stood on stage on the opening night of Jesus Christ Superstar in November 2013 that Bernie knew she’d made it through breast cancer. “There was such a sense of achievement and a real buzz... It took cancer to give me a kick up the backside, to get up and live life. Things that used to stress me no longer do. I used to go mental over dishes not being done or the house in a mess. Now I say ‘whatever’. It’s not important.”


Three cancer survivors say dying was not an option for them

Lesley Berney credits breast cancer for her transition from Celtic Tiger cub to foster mum who has had 12 children “through my home in the last four years”.

She was 28 in 2002 when she became one of just three women that year to be diagnosed with breast cancer. “I went to my GP because we were having difficulty getting pregnant. As I was leaving, as an after-thought, I asked him to check a lump I’d found in my breast.”

Lesley underwent a lumpectomy and a partial mastectomy two weeks later— on her third wedding anniversary. She had six months of chemotherapy followed by radiotherapy. “For me, dying wasn’t an option. I’m very stubborn. I don’t do anything I don’t want to do.” But she believes cancer gave her back her life. Working at the time as sales manager for an international coatings (paints) company, she was very career-driven and travelled a lot for business. “You get caught up in the rat race. I lost sight of what was important. Cancer stopped me in my tracks. [It] made me stand still and just breathe. To say cancer changed my life is an understatement. It was a light-bulb moment.

“I’d always known I was going to be a mum and I’d also known it wouldn’t be in the conventional way. Stephen [husband] and I looked at adoption. The waiting list was extremely long. We wanted to adopt from Vietnam but it closed. We took that as a sign.” Lesley and Stephen are currently fostering two girls fulltime.

For the last five years Lesley saw her consultant for an annual check-up. “Last year he signed me off. He said ‘Lesley, we’re breaking up. It’s not you it’s me’.”


Spring has sprung and a new Munster festival promises to celebrate its arrival with gusto, says Eve Kelliher.Spring has sprung: Munster festival promises to celebrate with gusto

The spotlight will fall on two Munster architects in a new showcase this year.Munster architects poised to build on their strengths

Prepare to fall for leather, whatever the weather, says Annmarie O'Connor.Trend of the week: It's always leather weather

The starting point for Michael West’s new play, in this joint production by Corn Exchange and the Abbey, is an alternative, though highly familiar, 1970s Ireland. You know, elections every few weeks, bad suits, wide ties, and a seedy nexus of politics and property development.Theatre Review: The Fall of the Second Republic at Abbey Theatre, Dublin

More From The Irish Examiner