AS part of the Cancer Focus Think Pink! breast cancer awareness campaign, which runs during October, Joan McKay (43) from Ballymoney shared her personal experiences.
Joan, a nurse who has also trained in reflexology, was diagnosed with breast cancer 18 months ago. She says: “About four years ago, I went to my doctor to get a cyst drained and it disappeared. Then, in 2011, I had another cyst so I returned to the doctor to have that drained too. However, my GP decided to send me to Antrim Area Hospital for a mammogram and ultra-sound test. It turned out that there was a tumour hiding behind the cyst.
“I had three biopsies there and then. By that stage I was starting to feel shaky and anxious about what I was going to hear. I realised something was wrong when they assigned me a breast cancer nurse that day. It was the following week before I got confirmation it was breast cancer.
“I had been telling myself that it would all right, but deep down I thought this just doesn’t look good. I spent that week trying to come to terms with it to try and prepare myself. I was still hoping it was something else. When I finally saw the doctor he said the good news was that the lymph nodes were fine, the bad news was there definitely was a tumour.
“That was on June 22. I had a lumpectomy shortly after that. The surgeon decided to take away a small wart at the same time, but that turned out to be cancerous too, so in September I had to have a mastectomy.
“I was shell-shocked when I heard and by the time of the operation I was on automatic pilot. I didn’t want to have the surgery but knew it had to be done.
“I had chemo between November and February and 25 cycles of radiotherapy spread over six weeks starting in March 2012. This March I started on tamoxifen.
“Losing my hair was another blow, I didn’t like that at all. You try to forget you’ve cancer but every time you look in the mirror you have to face it. That part was emotionally difficult for my mum, who I live with. She was looking at me all the time and couldn’t avoid it.
“I still find I get really, really tired but I try to keep bright and cheery - there are people who are worse off than I am. You have to keep positive and remember that it will soon be over. Having cancer really does change the way you think about life – you want to make the most of every day and other problems are suddenly far less important.
“During my treatment at Belfast City Hospital I met Cancer Focus Northern Ireland’s art therapist Joanne Robinson and joined her sessions. That was great. I used to paint but hadn’t done any for a long time. I zone out of everything else going on around me when I’m drawing or painting, so I find it’s a very relaxing, soothing thing to do.
“Joanne is great too. She knows when to pull back if someone doesn’t want to talk and instinctively knows when to change the subject. She’s a lovely girl and has just has the right happy medium of being good fun yet giving you space and quiet time. She’s perfect for the job.
“I’m really glad I am a year further forward. My advice to any woman would be to go to the doctor and get a check-up if anything is worrying you. Early detection and screening saves lives.”
Cancer Focus (the new name for the Ulster Cancer Foundation) encourages all women between 50 – 70 years of age to attend their breast screening appointment when called. Almost one third of women discover they have breast cancer through the breast screening service, yet out of every 100 local women called for screening, only 75 take up the invitation.
If you are concerned about breast cancer or want to talk to someone about signs and symptoms, call the Cancer Focus information and support helpline – 0800 783 3339 (Mon – Fri, 9am – 1pm).
Our free services include counselling, bra-ftting service, art therapy, creative writing, walking service, family support, Zest for Life and Beauty for Life. If you’d like to help us raise cash to fund our services, please email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 028 9066 3281. For more information click on www.cancerfocusni.org