Breast cancer at age 48: “I am alive, I am a warrior, I am here...”

October marks Breast Cancer Awareness month. CHRIS DUNNE talks to a mum of three who was diagnosed last year
Breast cancer at age 48: “I am alive, I am a warrior, I am here...”

Grainne Farren pictured relaxing in her garden at home in Rochestown. Picture: Howard Crowdy

GRAINNE Farren who lives in Rochestown, was diagnosed with breast cancer a year ago.

“In October, 2021, aged 48, I brushed upon a prominent lump in my breast while getting dressed. Something cold gripped my heart. I kept an eye on it for a week, but it was still there, so I saw my GP who referred me to the breast care clinic in the Bons. I felt like I was holding my breath,” said Grainne.

“Less than three weeks later I attended my appointment, alone, because of Covid restrictions. I had a physical exam, a mammogram, an ultrasound and a biopsy. Then the consultant sat me down and told me that the lump looked suspicious. When they said I should bring someone with me to get the results, I knew it wasn’t good.”

Grainne was worried.

“For the next week I didn’t sleep much. The possibility of cancer was always on my mind. Was history repeating itself? My dad had died of blood cancer when he was 46, and I was 11, and my broken-hearted mum had died of leukaemia three years later.

“Only my husband, Declan, knew about the lump, and we tried to keep up a façade of normality, for the kids, at work, with family and friends. It felt like I was falling into a big black hole that no-one else could see.”

Grainne Farren who turns 50 next year. She was diagnosed with breast cancer aged 48. Picture: Howard Crowdy
Grainne Farren who turns 50 next year. She was diagnosed with breast cancer aged 48. Picture: Howard Crowdy

Her husband was very supportive.

“Declan came with me for the results on November 16 and the consultant’s serious face said it all,” recalled Grainne.

“I had Stage 1 HER2 positive breast cancer. My world stopped turning. There was no history of breast cancer in my family, I had none of the usual risk factors, I exercised well, lived a healthy lifestyle, and I didn’t look or feel sick! I felt like everything was closing in on me, there was only one thought booming in my head… I have cancer, I have cancer, I have cancer. How was I going to tell my kids – Eve was 13 and Luke and Ruby were 12, too young to have to deal with this.

“We met my oncologist two days later and she was a much-needed ray of positivity. She reassured me that the cancer was very treatable, with a good response rate, and we were aiming for full recovery. Some light broke through, I could do this!”

She had to break the news to her family.

“Telling the kids was the hardest part. We were completely honest with them. We reassured them I was going to be fine, but that the treatment would make my hair fall out, make me very tired, and make me look sick, but would ultimately make me better. Between my tears I joked that I was going to have less hair than their dad, and we all laughed… and cried.

“I longed to take away their pain and fear, but all I could do was be there for them while they tried to process this massive bomb that had exploded in their young lives.

“I reassured them that we would try to keep their lives as normal as possible, I didn’t want cancer to be their only memory of the months that followed.”

The illness took over.

“The emotional and mental impact of the diagnosis was massive,” said Grainne.

“It consumed me. It was my last thought before falling into troubled sleep each night. When I woke each morning, for an instant I would think it had all been a dream, before grim reality flooded back... I have cancer.

“I was unable to focus, I couldn’t read, or watch TV, or even hold a conversation, my mind was constantly racing… I have cancer. What had I ever worried about before this?

“As acceptance set in, I began to feel more positive… It was stage 1, it was caught early, it was treatable, the outlook was good, I was surrounded by a whole lot of love and support, and a wonderful medical team had formed around me at the Bons, and they had a plan!

“Just nine days after my diagnosis, I started chemotherapy. It was November 25, Thanksgiving Day, which I found strangely appropriate, each of us saying what we were thankful for, I was thankful for the wonders of modern medicine that were going to save my life.

“We put up our Christmas tree the next day, in time for the Late Late Toy Show, and donned our Christmas jumpers to take an early Christmas family photo, while I still had hair!

“My hair fell out two weeks after I started chemo’. Massive clumps came out in the shower. It was devastating,” said Grainne.

“It was such a visible sign, and constant reminder, that I was sick. Even on the days when I wasn’t feeling too awful, when I looked in the mirror I saw cancer staring back. I tried to be rational, I knew it was temporary, and worse things were happening in the world, but I struggled with it.

Grainne Farren with her family on their holidays, 2022.
Grainne Farren with her family on their holidays, 2022.

“An old school friend really helped when she told me to own my feelings, it was OK to mourn the loss of my hair, it was OK to be upset. So I cried, and I moved on.”

The treatment began.

“Chemotherapy was a bit of a blur,” says Grainne.

“Six sessions over four months brought nausea, fatigue, dizziness, sleep disturbance, food aversions and more. But I counted them down, helped along by the support of everyone around me.

“Declan played a blinder, dropping me to appointments, helping the kids with their homework, cooking, shopping, and generally being me. On the days I couldn’t make it off the couch, the kids came to sit with me after coming home from school, filling me in on their day and fetching me glasses of water.”

Everyone rallied around.

“Family, friends and colleagues all rallied around and I was overwhelmed by people’s kindness,” said Grainne.

“ Because of Covid, and my low immunity, I wasn’t physically meeting many people, but throughout my four months of chemo’, the doorbell rang constantly with deliveries of flowers, candles, skin care products, crocheted blankets, care packages, hampers of really thoughtful gifts, and an avalanche of texts, cards and well wishes.

“My sister and brother were very supportive, and popped in regularly to help, drop off random food for my chemo’ cravings, go for walks, and patiently listen to my woes.

“Two friends texted daily during chemo’, just to let me know I was in their thoughts, which I found so supportive!

“A witty friend sent me a 10 minute voice recording every week of funny stories from her life, and I so looked forward to them and the much-needed laughter they brought!

“People took time out of their busy lives to meet me for walks and listen to me talk. An old college friend sent me a package to occupy me during my first chemo’ session, as I wasn’t allowed to bring anyone with me, it contained an A-Z of poignant and humorous shared memories, photos of fun times, and a single glove to wear during my treatment... she was wearing the other one, it was the closest she could get to holding my hand during treatment!”

Strangers were kind.

“The kindness of strangers was also very touching,” says Grainne.

A microblading specialist opened specially for me at a weekend so that I could get my eyebrow shape preserved before they fell out. My dental hygienist squeezed me in for a pre-chemo’ appointment and refused to charge me. The receptionist in the chemotherapy ward knew every patient by name, and the nurses exuded kindness and empathy. The lady in the wig shop gifted me a headscarf that I admired. 

"My acupuncturist let me use her bio energy treatment bed free of charge, so I could relax and re-energise. The receptionist in the radiotherapy department told me every day how fabulous I looked, even though I felt anything but! Her theory was that if you’re nice to people they feel good, and if they feel good, they do better. A hairdresser who does organic hair colour, suitable for cancer patients, opened specially for me on a Sunday so that I could have privacy getting my first colour after my hair grew back. 

"There was an outpouring of love and support everywhere I went.”

Christmas came.

“Christmas was emotional,” said Grainne.

Grainne said the kindness shown to her from family, friends and even strangers during her treatment is something she will never forget. Picture: Howard Crowdy
Grainne said the kindness shown to her from family, friends and even strangers during her treatment is something she will never forget. Picture: Howard Crowdy

“Covid was raging and my immunity was low, so we were advised to keep to ourselves for Christmas dinner. I was devastated, it would be my first time ever not spending Christmas with my siblings, something we had always made sure of since the loss of our parents. It was about a week since my second round of chemo’, so I wasn’t feeling great, but we ended up having a very special, cosy, family Christmas Day.

“We met very few people throughout my treatment, as Covid was still at large. Consequently, the kids missed out on sleepovers, parties, and first discos, but never once complained. I was in awe of their acceptance and resilience. We quietly marked birthdays, confirmations, Easter, and other family occasions, each one more precious than ever.”

Chemotherapy was a success – the tumour visibly shrank after every session.

“It was amazing to witness. I had a lumpectomy in April, with a follow-on surgery in May, and the surgeon was able to confirm that the chemo’ had effectively killed all the cancer cells. We were so relieved, I no longer had cancer!

“Two weeks of radiotherapy followed in July, after which we took a much-needed, relaxing family holiday. It was such a release to lie in the shade, relax, eat out, and forget about being a cancer patient for a short time.”

Grainne found more support through her journey.

“Shortly before I finished chemo’, I discovered Cork Cancer Care Centre on St Paul’s Avenue, and it has had a massive impact on my mental and emotional recovery. I loved the bright, colourful, welcoming space, and the infinite warmth of the team. 

"I went to counselling, and still avail of their holistic therapies such as reflexology, acupuncture, reiki and massage, benefitting not only from the treatments themselves but from the sheer kindness of the volunteer therapists.

“I also go to their weekly ‘Connect and Flourish’ support group, where I have met some incredibly brave people who are on similar journeys. Often, their emotional stories are overwhelming, but always their bravery is inspiring, and we all have one very important thing in common, understanding!”

Grainne is getting back to herself.

“I am still having preventative treatment, and I am just beginning to piece myself back together, mentally, physically and emotionally. I haven’t returned to work yet. I still have fatigue, brain fog, and plenty of pains and aches. However it hasn’t been an entirely unpleasant experience, there have been some amazing, memorable and touching moments in the past year. I’ve learned a lot about myself, and about human nature. I’m not the person I was before, and I don’t just mean the short hair!

“Cancer changes you. It brings out a strength you never knew you had. I look at the world through a different lens now, and I hope I keep my newfound respect for life and living. I have faced a life-threatening illness, I am alive, I am a warrior, I am here.

“I will turn 50 in January and instead of facing that milestone with dread, I look forward to it with excitement, knowing that it’s a privilege denied to many, including both my parents. Most importantly, I have already been given the most precious gift ever, more time.”

For more on Cork Cancer Care Centre, see https://www.corkcancercarecentre.ie/

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