Cork mum: ‘I decided that cancer wasn’t going to kill me but make me stronger’

Ahead of World Cancer Day, on February 4, a Cork woman shares her story and calls for changes to breast cancer screening, writes EMMA CONNOLLY
Cork mum: ‘I decided that cancer wasn’t going to kill me but make me stronger’
Helena O'Brien with her daughter Abigal, aged five. Picture: Joleen Cronin

A CORK woman who is recovering from breast cancer is calling for medical cards to be automatically given to anyone diagnosed with the illness, to reduce financial burden.

Helena O'Brien with her daughter Abigal, aged 5. Photo: Joleen Cronin
Helena O'Brien with her daughter Abigal, aged 5. Photo: Joleen Cronin

Helena O’Brien, from Bandon, also feels strongly that the age women are invited by BreastCheck for screening should be lowered from 50 to as young as 20.

Helena was diagnosed last May with Stage 2 breast cancer at the age of just 39.

The sales and marketing manager at the Montenotte Hotel had noticed an imperfection in her nipple over a few months.

Helena O'Brien believes Breast Check screening should be offered to women as young as 20. Photo: Joleen Cronin
Helena O'Brien believes Breast Check screening should be offered to women as young as 20. Photo: Joleen Cronin

But it was only when she was off work with a vomiting bug that she went to her GP to get it checked out.

“The last thing I expected at that stage was breast cancer, but I knew by my doctor’s face that I potentially had it. In fact, she told me some months later that at that moment, all she could think about was my daughter Abigail, who was four at the time,” remembers Helena.

An appointment was arranged for the following week at the Breast Clinic in the Bon Secours Hospital where she underwent a mammogram, ultrasound and biopsy, followed by her diagnosis.

However, Helena said she was so overwhelmed by the medical jargon initially used by her consultant that she wasn’t entirely sure if she had cancer or not, and had to get confirmation from a nurse.

Helena O'Brien with her daughter Abigal, aged 5. Abigail was just four years old when Helena was diagnosed.Photo: Joleen Cronin
Helena O'Brien with her daughter Abigal, aged 5. Abigail was just four years old when Helena was diagnosed.Photo: Joleen Cronin

But from the outset she was told that that cancer was curable and was the most common of all they treat.

“For once in my life I was glad to be common,” she says light-heartedly. “I knew all I had to do was put myself in the hands of my medical team to get through it. I decided there and then that it wasn’t going to kill me, or define me but make me stronger and I’ve stuck with that.”

She underwent a lumpectomy, a biopsy around the tumour and a biopsy of lymph nodes.

“They discovered pre-cancer cells in the breast and cancer cells in the lymph nodes so I had a second lumpectomy and they removed a further 18 lymph nodes, so 23 in total. There wasn’t any cancer detected that time round either in the breast or in any other organ in the body,” said Helena.

“When I heard that, I asked my doctor, Deirdre O’Hanlon, if it would be inappropriate to hug her and she said no and I gave her the biggest hug ever!”

What followed was chemotherapy, and radiotherapy which only finished up last November.

Helena lost her hair during chemo, along with her brows and eye lashes which she admits to finding difficult.

Helena O'Brien with her daughter Abigal. She hopes to return to work shortly. Photo: Joleen Cronin
Helena O'Brien with her daughter Abigal. She hopes to return to work shortly. Photo: Joleen Cronin

“Losing half a breast didn’t bother me half as much as losing my hair as it’s part of your identity and of course people know then you’re sick. My daughter actually helped someone shave it. But I didn’t really care if people looked at me as in my mind I was healing.”

And that’s exactly what Helena has been doing since finishing treatment, despite battling the indescribable fatigue that can hit after radiotherapy.

A single mum, she worked until her second round of chemo, before having no option but to give up. But despite the fact that she was out of work and on illness benefit, she did not qualify for a medical card, which is means tested.

“I bought a new house last year and had mortgage protection; but I didn’t have salary protection. I was lucky I had private health insurance with Laya and the drugs scheme helped, but I still felt financial strain.”

Helena says she made sacrifices to afford her health insurance but says it was the best investment she ever made.

“I’ve gone through what, for some, is a terrible journey but I had the most incredible team, I saw the same faces every week, and they always had time to dedicate to me and answer all my questions.”

Helena O'Brien want to see breast cancer screening changed.Photo: Joleen Cronin
Helena O'Brien want to see breast cancer screening changed.Photo: Joleen Cronin

She feels so strongly about cancer and medical cards going hand in hand, that she’s hoping to set up an online petition to gather support.

There’s already an online petition to lower the BreastCheck screening age, but Helena wants the state to take action on it.

“Cancer doesn’t care about what age you are or what responsibilities you have in life and this is about the state realising that. And it’s not about wondering could I have been diagnosed earlier. I’m thinking of future generations, and my daughter, who deserve better.”

Helena is hoping to return to work shortly and since her chemo finished has been seeing a fantastic counsellor at Cork Cancer Care Centre. She’s also one of the thousands of people taking part in Dr Ciara Kelly’s ‘100 days of walking’ challenge and loving it.

The easiest part, she recalls, was the surgery:

“The body will heal; it’s the emotional part that’s harder.

“But I ended 2019 on a high and started 2020 by saying this is going to be my year. It’s all about looking forward.”

To mark World Cancer Day on February 4, Laya healthcare is embarking on a Cancer Care campaign to help members with a diagnosis realise the benefits and support services available to them, including mental wellbeing and financial planning.

For more see www.layahealthcare.ie/yourbenefits/cancercare/

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