Breast cancer: ‘No matter what, get yourself checked’

Patients and staff welcome €3m cancer care facilities that replace prefabs in Limerick, writes Kathryn Hayes

KAREN KEATING found a lump in her breast a week before Christmas in 2015.

The 36-year-old was referred by her GP to the breast unit at University Hospital Limerick for further tests.

She underwent a mastectomy earlier this year and is currently undergoing chemotherapy at University Hospital Limerick.

The mother-of-two from Tipperary is one of the many women who had to endure the cramped environment of the old prefab unit when she was diagnosed with breast cancer on January 7 last.

She has welcomed the opening of the new €3m breast unit which replaces the overcrowded prefab unit where worried patients had to sit under a stairway in a claustrophobic space.

The state-of-the-art facility means for the first time women in the mid-west have a single centre for all breast outpatient needs; reducing the need for worried and unwell women having to trek across the hospital for consultations and procedures.

The number of new and return cases has more than doubled in the mid-west over the last decade from 3,073 in 2005 to 6,726 last year. There were 206 new breast cancers diagnosed in the Breast Unit at UHL in 2015.

The women ranged in age from 23 to 96, with an average age of 68. Activity continues to increase annually.

“Sitting in the old breast unit you were waiting on results and feeding off people around you, it was so busy some people had to sit out in the hallway, it was overpowering,” Karen explains.

“Here [in the new unit] you have the brightness, the air. It’s a totally different environment.

“I never would have thought in a million years I would be sitting here with breast cancer. I hadn’t checked in a while and I just checked and found a lump a week before Christmas and went to my GP.

“I kind of knew by my doctor’s reaction as she asked if I had any lumps under my arms. I knew it was serious enough but I didn’t tell any of my family at the time I just waited to get the check-up done,” she added.

Karen is determined to maintain a positive outlook and encourages all women to check themselves regularly.

“Your health is more important than anything; think of family and think of yourself, and no matter what, you do have to get your check done. Ever since the Jade Goody story I get my smear tests done regularly because of the awareness she raised and how public she was with her battle,” she said of the death of the Big Brother star in 2009.

“The more awareness that is brought up about breast cancer and the more it is talked about the better. From the start I never felt I couldn’t talk about it, but I think it should be spoken about and it shouldn’t be something people have to hide,” she added.

Breast cancer: ‘No matter what, get yourself checked’

Recalling how she felt after her mastectomy, Karen, mum to Billy (18) and Tommy (14), said: “It needed to be done, and for me I would prefer to live to see my children go to college, get married. I would prefer to see them, a breast is nothing to me compared to that.”

The new breast unit, which opened in July, occupies the fourth floor of the Leben Building at University Hospital Limerick. The unit is tastefully furnished with comfortable couches and decorated with colourful floral wallpapers and light fittings in bright shades of pink, lime green and purple.

The majority of patients who attend the Limerick Breast Unit come from outside the main screening group and are aged under 50 or over 65, according to Shona Tormey, consultant breast surgeon.

“For some of our older women it was a challenge having to trek over to X-ray for mammograms from the old prefab which also involved going down a ramp and coming back up again to wait for results,” said Ms Tormey.

“Our old clinic was an upstairs downstairs arrangement. Our reception was on one floor and you had to come down a narrow stairs and sit under the stairs to wait to be seen again and to wait for results.

“We are trying to provide a service that reassures and provides support for patients and the environment is integral to that. The entire old clinic was run from an area the size of the new waiting room. It’s hoped the lighter, brighter, calmer and bigger space will contribute to a better patient care. I think respect and dignity and privacy are crucial,” she said.

As well as offering full mammography services the new breast unit includes consultation rooms, a multidisciplinary team conference room, a prosthesis fitting room, a family room, administrative offices and a quiet room where women can retire for cancer consultations and information.

The unit also boasts cutting-edge diagnostics, with two ultrasound and two mammography suites, including the first use in a public hospital in Ireland of tomosynthesis, also known as 3D mammography.

“You are trying to support patients in what can be a really difficult time. The old unit wasn’t an appropriate environment and I think to be fair this has made such a difference, in what we hope is calmer environment because our clinics can get quite frantic,” added Ms Tormey.

Along with increased capacity, the new unit will offer an additional clinic from October which will enable the service to run three new patient clinics which will give capacity for additional patients.

It’s hoped waiting times for non-urgent referrals will also be reduced with eventually all patients seen within two to eight weeks.

The standard practice across all eight centres of excellence for breast cancer care is that all urgent patients are seen across ten working days but a non- urgent referral can take up to 12 weeks.

“For a lot of women that window is too long and there are patients who certainly would have gone outside the region and would have been seen elsewhere perhaps because of this,” admitted Ms Tormey.

Speaking at the opening of the facility at UHL, Prof Niall O’Higgins, chairman of UL Hospitals Group, said the increase in activity alone was a compelling enough reason to find a new home for the breast unit.

However, he also accepted that the challenges posed by the old hospital building with breast services dispersed around the hospital campus and women having to travel back and forth between the breast unit and radiology department was an equally compelling reason for change.


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