My shock breast cancer diagnosis

To mark Breast Cancer Awareness Month, we continue to share the stories of Cork women diagnosed with the disease, CHRIS DUNNE talks to Therese Cahill
My shock breast cancer diagnosis

Therese Murphy Cahill and Eimear Cahill

WHEN 50-year-old Therese Cahill got a freebie for her birthday, she didn’t look a gift horse in the mouth.

“I was 50 when I went for my first- ever mammogram to the Breast Check Clinic,” says Therese, from Fermoy, who is mum to teenager Eimear.

“It was a birthday present to myself.”

The last thing on Therese’s mind was breast cancer.

“In my ignorance, I always thought a lump had to be detected on the breast to have breast cancer, but some cancers don’t present. I am much more educated now.”

Therese was diagnosed with invasive lobular breast cancer in July, 2016.

“It is an unusual type of breast cancer,” says Therese. “I was totally shocked because I don’t drink or smoke. I walk 25km a week, I do Pilates classes and I cook everything from scratch.

“There is no history of breast cancer in my family, although my mother died in July, 2019, of gall bladder cancer.

“But I ticked all the boxes. So I was thinking; how? how? how? How did I get cancer? It was very scary.”

There was some good news though.

“The really good thing was that my breast cancer was detected at an early stage; stage 2,” says Therese.

It was her lucky day.

“The Breast Check nurse said; ‘You don’t know how lucky you are’. I asked her what did she mean? She told me when the cancer is caught so early, the better the outcome. Early detection is the name of the game. Everything works out better and everything looks better.”

The Breast Cancer Clinic Cork carries out breast screening involving an X-ray of the breast tissue called a mammogram. A mammogram can pick up small changes when they are too small to see or feel.

“The Breast Check Clinic is a one-stop shop and I was lucky to have all the necessary procedures there, a breast mammogram, and a needle biopsy when something showed up after a second screening of the left breast. Then I had an ultra-sound and an MRI done to be sure to be sure,” says Therese.

“People in their 20s up to their 50s often have dense breast tissue and it takes more than a mammogram to detect cancerous tissue.

“Not a lot of people know that. It needs to be put out there.”

Therese was gob-smacked at her diagnosis when there were no obvious signs.

“I had no puckering on my breasts,” says Therese.

“I had no dimples on them. I didn’t have an inverted nipple or anything that might alert me that there was anything wrong.”

Invasive lobular breast cancer is a rare form of breast cancer that begins in the milk-producing glands (lobular) of the breast.

“I had to come back to the Breast Check Clinic the following week for the results of the biopsy,” says Therese.

“And to find out what form of breast cancer I had. There are 16 different types.”

Driving home from the Breast Check Clinic, Therese was still in shock.

“Driving home that Monday evening, I was thinking I had a hole in my breast and now I was facing radium treatment and surgery.”

There was a more frightening prospect.

“The hardest thing was having to tell my daughter that I was sick,” says Therese.

“Eimear had moved schools in 6th class and she was just settling in, making new friends.”

What was Eimear’s reaction?

“She started crying and she asked me, ‘Are you going to die?” That’s a difficult question to answer.

“I didn’t answer her straight away,” says Therese.

“I waited a few seconds and then I told her the doctors were very hopeful it would be OK and when she saw my scar the cancer would be gone. I told her I wanted to see her finish school and go on to secondary school. Thanks to the work of Breakthrough Cancer Research, I was able to give her good news.”

The revelation of her mother’s breast cancer slowly dawned on Eimear.

“I’ll have a baldy mum at my confirmation!” she said.

But all was not lost.

“Eimear said I could borrow a pink wig out of her dress-up box!”

Cancer had visited the family before in another guise.

“My first cousin Michael John died after he got prostate cancer in April, 2016,” says Therese. “It was horrific.

“The tumour was too big to treat. I said; when they take my cancer out, it will be gone forever,” says Therese.

She faced down the enemy with all guns blazing.

“I had six rounds of intensive chemotherapy treatment involving a combination of three drugs; Taxotere, Carboplatin and Herceptine in CUH. It was hard going.”

But when the going gets tough, the tough get going.

“I’d be stubborn!” says Therese. “I was going to see it through.”

She didn’t dwell on her condition and the gruelling treatment it required.

“I went back to adult learning to distract myself, studying health care, child care and communications,” says Therese.

“In between treatments, I completed all my assignments, all the modules and my exams.”

Therese had another assignment to take care of.

“I shaved off all my hair! Cancer may have got my boob, but chemo sure wasn’t getting my hair! It was my way of taking control.”

Therese didn’t hang about.

“When I had the surgery to remove the cancerous tissue in the area around my breast in CUH in September, I was back home in Fermoy at 7.30pm that same evening.”

She was part of a great team.

“Consultant medical oncologist Deirdre O’Mahony, was my oncologist and Dr Carol McGibney was my radiologist. The lead breast surgeon, Martin O’Sullivan, made up a brilliant team. We got on like a house on fire!” says Therese.

“There was a lot of banter and off-beat humour between us.”

Five years after her first visit to the Breast Check clinic, when she was 50, Therese is still currently on Tamoxifen, for a five-year cycle. “This may change to an Aromatase inhibitor like Letrozole, Anastrozole or Exemestane for a further five years.

“The ongoing breast cancer research carried out by Breakthrough Cancer is hugely important,” says Therese.

“Early detection is key. Never ignore an appointment to go for breast screening, even if there are no obvious signs of anything wrong. Research has shown longer time is needed on hormone or endocrine therapy for my type of cancer. I will be on some sort of treatment for 10 years or even more.”

Therese says breast cancer can strike anyone at any time.

“It is a horrible illness that has absolutely no boundaries,” she says.

“You can do all the right things like in my case and still get this dreadful illness.”

Therese has gone back to the books.

“I have an exam coming up to complete level 5 for a health care assistant. Having being sick, I got a better insight into the health service.”

Therese looks on her cancer journey as a chapter in her life.

“I told Eimear it was a chapter in my book of life,” says Therese.

“Now it’s time for the next chapter.”

She learned a valuable lesson.

“I don’t sweat the small stuff,” says Therese.

“Any fine day, we are up and gone! Last week we loaded up the car and we took off to Ardmore like lunatics!

“We went swimming in the sea. The housework will still be there. I found that out.”

Therese finds herself in a good place in her life, keeping her loved ones close.

“Eugene, my husband, is from Westmeath,” she says.

“But we won’t hold that against him!”

I was totally shocked because I don’t drink or smoke. I walk 25km a week. I do Pilates classes and I cook everything from scratch.

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