I didn’t think I’d be lucky enough to survive cancer a second time 

Ann-Marie Durcan was diagnosed with breast cancer in her early 20s, days after the birth of her second child. In her mid-30s, she was told she had ovarian cancer. 
I didn’t think I’d be lucky enough to survive cancer a second time 

Ann-Marie Durcan and her son Patrick in 2021 Picture: FoKiss Photography

FROM a young age, Ann-Marie Durcan believed she’d one day get breast cancer.

Based near Ballina, County Mayo, the 36-year-old mum-of-three lost her own mother to the disease when she was just six. Her aunt had earlier died from breast cancer.

“My mum found out she had cancer at the time of her sister’s funeral,” says Ann-Marie, who began checking her breasts aged 18.

At 23, standing in the shower, she found a lump in her left breast. “I said it to my fiancé, Patrick. He could feel it too.”

Her GP — not overly concerned but mindful of Ann-Marie’s family history — immediately referred her to the Galway breast clinic. It was concluded she had a benign fibroadenoma, nothing to worry about but she should keep an eye on it. “The doctor said I was much too young to have breast cancer.”

Pregnant soon after with a second child, Caitlin, the lump grew bigger, more painful, as the pregnancy progressed. “My GP got concerned — she’d never seen a cyst that big.”

Almost at her due date, Ann-Marie was again referred to the breast clinic, by which time she’d discovered a second lump. Biopsies were done. “The doctor rang, asking me to come for the results. I was in a mad nesting stage, up at 4am cleaning the house. I said, ‘Can we put it off for a week or two — I’ll have had the baby by then’.”

This wasn’t an option. At the clinic, she was diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer. Although cancer had always been on her radar, Ann-Marie never thought she’d get it so young. “I thought if I got it, I’d be closer to my mum’s age.”

She says the news was like a death sentence: “Everyone I’d known who’d got breast cancer had died. I thought, ‘I’m going to leave my children without a mum’.”

Ann-Marie and Patrick with Caitlin, Patrick jnr and Isabelle. Picture: FoKiss Photography
Ann-Marie and Patrick with Caitlin, Patrick jnr and Isabelle. Picture: FoKiss Photography

The devastating news came on a Friday. By now two days overdue with Caitlin, Ann-Marie was told she’d need a caesarean-section scheduled for Monday. “Thankfully, I had the baby naturally on the Sunday.”

Three days after giving birth, a scan thankfully confirmed the cancer hadn’t spread. A week later, she started chemotherapy: “Luckily I wasn’t too sick on it. I’m naturally a healthy person. I’ve plenty of energy, so when I wasn’t in hospital I was doing feeds with Caitlin, dropping my older child to Montessori.”

Ann-Marie underwent double mastectomy with immediate reconstruction — plus 28 sessions of radiation therapy, finishing treatment in September 2011. Genetic testing showed she was BCRA1 positive. “I wasn’t surprised.”

Recommended from that point to undergo regular blood tests and pelvic ultrasounds, Ann-Marie regained her health, training as a mental health nurse. She and husband Patrick are also parents to Isabelle, 15, and Ann-Marie had always wanted a bigger family. Patrick, 3, was born as the pandemic unfolded.

“The oncologist said it’d be fine for me to get pregnant — it wouldn’t trigger another cancer.”

However, Ann-Marie was advised to have her fallopian tubes and ovaries removed once her son was born so as to reduce the risk of developing ovarian cancer. “The thought of going into menopause, of the side-effects — it was big stuff for a woman to go through, especially 20 years ahead of when menopause would happen naturally. So I was ready to go ahead with the removal of my fallopian tubes but not the ovaries.”

With all non-urgent surgery postponed during the pandemic, Ann-Marie’s surgery was moved to June 2021. In December 2020 — 10 months after her son’s birth — her scans were clear, but then she started noticing weight gain in her stomach, a few episodes of what she thought was a urinary tract infection and fatigue.

“I thought I hadn’t lost the weight after the birth, that working nights I wasn’t getting as much exercise.” After her summer 2021 surgery, the consultant said she’d seen cysts on Ann-Marie’s ovaries and fluid around her womb — she was concerned. “Two weeks later, I got the news over the phone — at home with my children — that I had advanced ovarian cancer. I took the call in the bathroom — I didn’t want to worry my girls. I wasn’t expecting this news at all — ovarian cancer is usually found in older women.

“I was lucky to survive cancer once — I didn’t think I’d be lucky enough to survive a second one. I didn’t know any positive stories of people surviving ovarian cancer — it had always been bad news, low survival rates. I thought ‘this is it, I’m not going to survive this’.”

 Ann-Marie Durcan following her treatment, in November 2022
Ann-Marie Durcan following her treatment, in November 2022

When Ann-Marie says “one positive was knowing what chemo was like, knowing the routine of scans, appointments”, it puts in stark context all she has endured with cancer. With a baby aged 18 months, she began chemotherapy, followed by a radical hysterectomy and further chemo. She’s currently on maintenance therapy of a PARP inhibitor or targeted cancer drugs and monthly monitoring blood tests.

“This treatment wasn’t available 10 years ago — I feel so lucky it’s available now. The surgery did drop me straight into menopause at 35 — overnight I was in the middle of it, another shock to my body that brings its own issues.”

It was only after treatment that Ann-Marie realised the full extent of what had happened. “Going through cancer, you kind of shut down emotionally; thinking of the future is too difficult when you don’t know if you’re going to be here in six months. The toughest time emotionally comes at the end when you’re lucky enough to have got through.”

In processing the whole traumatic experience, Ann-Marie got tremendous, vital support from the Irish Cancer Society. “They’ve been amazing. I’ve had over-the-phone counselling from them and that has really, really helped me.”

  • Irish Cancer Society’s flagship fundraising appeal, Daffodil Day takes place today. The Society typically receives 3% of its income from the Government. The public’s generous donations fund cancer research, trials, and support services for people affected by cancer throughout Ireland. Visit cancer.ie/daffodilday to donate.

Look for the warning signs

Irish Cancer Society education manager Aoife McNamara says an estimated 44,000 people in Ireland get cancer each year.

“The good news is more people are surviving cancer than ever before. You’re more likely to survive cancer if you spot it at an early stage.”

McNamara urges taking time today, Daffodil Day, to check for symptoms.

“Learn what’s normal for you — talk to your doctor if you spot any changes.”

Unexplained changes

  • Lump/swelling. Check whole body, not just testicles/breasts.
  • Bleeding that’s not normal for you. Coughing up blood or noticing it in pee or poo isn’t normal. Neither is vaginal bleeding between periods, after sex or after menopause.
  • Weight loss — small weight changes over time are normal. Big weight loss — unrelated to dieting — may signal something more serious.
  • Unexplained pain you feel for more than four weeks.

Persistent changes

  • Cough/changes in your voice or shortness of breath. See GP if any of these persist for more than three weeks,
    especially if a smoker/ex-smoker.
  • Sore/spot/wart that doesn’t heal in a few weeks. Check out, even if painless.
  • Difficulty swallowing, indigestion or heartburn.
  • Bloating that doesn’t go away within a few weeks.
  • Mouth/tongue ulcer lasting three weeks or more.

Unusual changes

  • Change in toilet habits. Constipation, diarrhoea or problems passing urine for more than a few weeks.
  • New mole/change to existing mole. Check skin monthly for new moles. Watch for changes in colour, shape, size of existing moles.
  • Any change in your breast. Make a habit of checking your breasts for changes in shape, size, nipples, skin. Watch for pain in one breast.

Four in 10 cancers are preventable. Not smoking, eating healthily, watching weight and alcohol intake and exercising, are all big steps to lower cancer-risk.

Visit www.cancer.ie; call support line: Freephone 1800 200 700.

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