LIFE was ticking away nicely for Douglas woman Helen Duggan nine years ago. In her mid-40s, work was going nicely, and her two girls were doing well in secondary school.
Then she found a lump in her breast and life as she knew it ground to an abrupt halt.
“I was 46,” says Helen, who is a member of Cork Dragons, a group of breast cancer survivors, friends and family, who paddle 40ft boats with dragon, heads, tails and drums on the River Lee on a weekly basis
What was Helen’s first port of call when she got the awful shock of discovering a lump on her breast?
“I went to my own GP,” she says.
“He sent me straight to the Breast Clinic in CUH where I had an ultra- sound and a mammogram, as well as a biopsy.”
She had to play a waiting game during this worrying time.
“Then I waited until the tests were analysed,” says Helen.
“When I went back to the clinic, it was confirmed that yes, there was a lump in my breast that had to be removed. It was a worrying time for me and for my family.”
There was another shock in store for Helen.
“The lymph nodes were checked as well. A blue dye is injected into the breast, which shows up affected areas around the breast. I was shocked that my lymph nodes had to be removed also which meant another operation. That was a big shock.”
Around 2,600 women are diagnosed with breast cancer in Ireland every year. Everyone reacts differently to surgery and treatment for the disease.
Helen had an inflammatory response to her surgery, causing a build-up of fluid and some swelling in the tissues.
“I had a drain inserted for a couple of weeks, due to the reaction of the surgery,” says Helen.
“Everyone reacts in a different way. I had to be very careful about the risk of infection. I had no protection.”
Unfortunately, Helen contracted a nasty infection and as a result, she had to be hospitalised again.
“I had to have antibiotics through an intravenous drip to treat the infection,” she says.
“I was back in hospital for a week. My husband, Conan, was very supportive, and kept things going at home. I was still getting over two operations and I was now dealing with the setback of infection.”
And after going through the mill, Helen wasn’t out of the woods yet. Gruelling chemotherapy and radiotherapy treatment were facing her.
“That came as a bit of a blow alright,” says Helen.
“I was very unsure about the chemotherapy treatment. You hear so much about it. I often thought ‘no way I’d have it’.
“Radiotherapy treatment was to follow afterwards as part of my treatment plan.”
But very often, the intense medical procedures can prove to be life-saving treatments.
Chemotherapy is usually recommended if there is cancer in the lymph nodes, regardless of tumour size or menopausal status.
Radiotherapy is given after surgery to reduce the risk of breast cancer coming back in the breast, chest area, or lymph nodes.
“Having to have chemotherapy treatment was the worst blow,” says Helen, who had been through so much already.
“I went through the six rounds of treatment in a bit of a blur to be honest. I had chemotherapy every three weeks after Christmas. It was horrible. It became my worst enemy.
“The first three sessions were bad, but the next three sessions were even worse. I was knocked out for a good couple of days after getting the treatment.”
But the treatment worked. Helen was able to return to work.
“I do office work,” says Helen. “In between treatment sessions, I felt I could return to work and work at my desk.”
The welcome diversion from hospital appointments was good therapy for Helen.
“The distraction took my mind off the cancer and the treatment temporarily,” says Helen
“After the chemotherapy was finished, I had radiotherapy for six weeks, five days a week.”
Helen began to bounce back to normality.
“Slowly my hair came back,” she says. And my strength came back. I noticed the strength returning in my arms. I love to swim and I was able to go back swimming again.”
Family life resumed too.
“In 2012, the Cork Dragons were formed,” says Helen.
“That time, I was busy with work and family, so I never joined up, even though I felt that I would sometime.
“The other thing, was I didn’t really want to talk too much about my breast cancer journey or to be reminded of it if at all possible.”
She just wanted her life back on track.
“I wanted to get on with things,” adds Helen.
“But if I could help somebody as a friend in the same boat as me, then I would.”
A friend at the pool mentioned the Dragons to Helen. She was game-ball to join them in the water, looking forward to the camaraderie, the fun atmosphere and the positive physical activity that the Dragons enjoy.
“I joined the Dragons this summer,” says Helen.
She found the company of the water warriors uplifting.
“The Cork Dragons are not a group to wallow on what happened to them,” says Helen.
“They are up-beat and positive. I realised that they were really happy getting on with life.”
Helen, full of optimism, is doing the same.
“I am cancer free and I put all thoughts of cancer to the back of my head. I’m working away. The girls are grown-up.
“The support from my family and from my extended family was always brilliant.”
Helen, eager to raise awareness about breast cancer during Cork Pink Week, says regular examination of the breasts is vital.
“I checked my breasts only by chance,” she says.
“The lump I found was not very big and I could have missed detecting it easily. You need to check your breasts regularly and follow up immediately if there is anything abnormal. The sooner you check and follow up if necessary, the chances are better that everything will be al right.”
Helen is out the other side, looking forward to the future.
“Yes, it was an ordeal,” she says, talking about her breast cancer journey.
She had the best medical team taking care of her.
“I had my all my treatment in CUH and the medical staff at the Breast Clinic are fabulous.”
Fellow Dragon, Caroline Warren, from Bandon, who also conquered cancer, and then leukaemia, going through gruelling treatment for both, portrays the positive ripple effect of being part of the Dragon Warriors.
“You can waste your whole life worrying about cancer,” says Caroline. “Then you waste your whole life. For us Dragons it’s all about camaraderie, positivity, and having fun. And what we can achieve as a team.”
See http://corkdragons.ie/ for more information