Feel for lumps, save your life

Diane O’Connor talks to a woman who survived breast cancer.

Statistics reveal that breast cancer is the most common female cancer in Ireland.

About 2,700 women get breast cancer in Ireland each year. The vast majority (eight out of 10) are over 50, though young women, and even in rare cases men, can also get breast cancer. Though success rates in recent years have improved (one-year survival rates exceed 95 per cent), the experience for women with breast cancer can be harrowing.

Sitting comfortably onher living room couch in the warmth indoors, while strong winds had pitch-black branches swaying swiftly outside, Derville Daly spoke about her terrifying experience, only to reveal she is no longer afraid. “When going through it, you face fears that you manage to get through, and then suddenly you don’t fear them any more.”

She believes that a benefit of undergoing the mental anguish of breast cancer – from finding a lump, to testing positive, to treatment, to, if you are one of the lucky ones, recovery – is becoming a fearless female.

October is the month of breast-cancer awareness, when we are surrounded by pink in its entire halo. The colour pink has been adopted as the associated colour for breast cancer, with the pink ribbon being the international symbol for breast-cancer awareness. Breast-cancer awareness month aims to highlight the symptoms and statistics of one of the most common cancers and to make people aware.

However, do we, as young females, and also even the more susceptible, actually need to be aware of breast cancer?

Ms Daly talked of how crucial it is to be very aware of all the symptoms; even the ones she herself was unaware of were breast-cancer related. “Timing really is everything. I found a lump and before I knew it I was in surgery.”

She was checking regularly for lumps due to her family history, her mother dying from breast cancer at the young age of 38. Ms Daly got it at 41. So she knows it is so important to recognise what to look out for with your body. “If you think you’ve noticed something, anything abnormal, get it seen to immediately.”

She feels a lot of women think they have found a lump, but are not sure, so they therefore decide to “just leave it a little while”, when unfortunately just this “little while” could make a huge difference, as early detection leads to more treatment options and thus better chances of survival.

Ms Daly feels, however, that awareness has improved since her diagnosis. “There are a lot morecampaigns and information out there now. Well-known people have also come out and spoken about it, which definitely increases awareness in general.”

Angelina Jolie, for example, went public about her preventative double mastectomy in 2013 and everyone was astonished. This raised huge awareness of breast cancer all over the media.

However, despite being aware, can we understand what these powerful women have faced through their trauma and how they managed to cope?

To understand the impact breast cancer has on an individual, it is necessary to speak to brave people such Derville Daly, who have been through the tough times of breast cancer and came out changed, stronger women.

This reporter asked her housemates, both genders, all in their early twenties, what symptoms they know of associated with breast cancer. Their answer was identical: a lump. Is this really the only symptom we are aware of, even with an awareness month every year?

Ms Daly was not surprised at the lack of knowledge of the common early symptoms of breast cancer. She said that the very common, less-known symptoms are unexplained weight loss and fatigue.

“I lost a stone and a half in six weeks. I thought, ‘Wow this is great. I’m losing weight without even trying hard’. When I think about it now I feel silly – losing that much unexplained weight is never good.”

Along with this she was “absolutely exhausted and worn out”. She did not know that these were symptoms and therefore did not think anything of them, until she did find a symptom she, and my housemates, know of: a lump.

Once she discovered the lump, she went on a terrifying journey through treatment and recovery. She explained that she could not even take in the information. “I was in shock. They were speaking about treatment and what happens next, but all I heard was cancer.”

Within three weeks of being diagnosed, she was operated on. “This was one of the most terrifying parts. I was terrified of surgery. Along with the fear of going in for surgery just three weeks after being diagnosed was shock, but I also had to give permission for them to take off the breast if needed.

“They don’t know before surgery if they’ll be able to take out just the lump or have to remove the whole breast. So you have to give permission for them to make the decision after opening you up.” It is not hard to imagine her fear, fear of the unknown, which gets us all. But her reaction was: “Once you’re in it, you just focus on getting through it.”

Despite the exhausting treatment regimen she underwent – “ I had a lumpectomy, chemotherapy, radiotherapy and lymph-node removal in one arm” – she managed to see some benefit from her life experience. She accepted what she got, she fought through it, and she used it.

She saw her horrible wake-up call as a renewal. “It teaches you to definitely appreciate life more, to prioritise better and worry less. There’s no point worrying. Make the most of today; drink red wine and dance.”

Ms Daly is now a suicide counsellor. This is another intriguing thing about this woman; she has fought for her life while going through something uncontrollable, unfair and painful, and now can work to help people looking to take their lives by choice.

“I wanted to do something worthwhile. My experience made me appreciate life. Someone suffering from suicidal thoughts – it’s the opposite of fighting for your life. So I felt I could do something for them.”

Does she feel like a different person now, years later? “Yes absolutely. When going through it, you face fears. Everyone has this fear of dying – myself included. So you have to face the fear of dying because no one can tell you that you won’t die.

“Doctors can’t say that to you because they don’t know; everyone reacts to treatment differently. From this, you lose that fear of death and actually become stronger and more confident from being forced to face this biggest fear. For example, I am no longer shy or afraid of embarrassment. I now love a good karaoke and don’t have a care about it.”

Few of us can identify with being faced with this fear of death, so we cannot understand what Ms Daly gained from this fear, but we can certainly respect it. Becoming fearless and stronger is helping her enjoy her life more and have a whole new perspective, and that is something inspirational in any person.

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