“IT’S been a privilege to have worked in nursing all my life, and to have spent 20 years working in breast services has been the icing on the cake.”
So says Ber Roche Healy, who works at the Breast Clinic in Cork University Hospital, where having been through the illness herself, she brings a unique perspective to her patients.
Ber, originally from Charleville, now living on the Model Farm Road, originally wanted to study hotel management.
“I came from a family of nine and my mother told me to be a nurse so I did! And it was the best decision I ever made,” she remembers.
Having taken some time out to stay at home with her four children, she was contacted when the clinic first opened in 1999 to see if she’d be interested in coming on board as a senior nurse.
“Initially, I have to admit I thought it wasn’t for me… I was apprehensive. But I gave it a go and very quickly I loved it.”
Having been referred by their GP, not everyone who comes to the Rapid Access Symptomatic Breast Clinic will be diagnosed with the illness.
Ber says their job is to make the pathway to getting a result, positive or negative, as fast and stress free as possible.
And, importantly, remembering to treat everyone as an individual.
“Some people might have just found a lump, or have pain; others might have had a lump for months before they take this step,” she said.
Their system of doing mammograms, biopsies and ultrasounds on a single day, she feels, is crucial to make things as easy as possible for women.
But she acknowledges that the wait for results is an agonising one — and she knows that from her own experience.
Around 10 years ago she got an overwhelming feeling that she had breast cancer.
“I just felt something wasn’t right. So during a clinic I had a mammogram, biopsy and ultrasound. It only took around 40 minutes. Within a few days I knew I had breast cancer and I had the lump removed a few weeks later.
“I needed hormonal treatment for five years and radiotherapy. I had my surgery on a Monday and at the end of that week I went on holidays to Portugal with my family and turned a corner. I was very dogmatic about it and said this is the way it is,” she said.
However, Ber, now aged 61 and ‘feeling fantastic,’ says the experience highlighted to her how everyone goes through the illness differently.
“That was the big thing for me and respecting that. Being told you have breast cancer, any type of cancer, it’s unbelievable. Some people want space, others want hugs and hand-holding. I’d like to think at this stage I have an instinct for what’s needed.”
She’s very keen to stress that patients have their own ideas, and need to be listened to and afforded dignity.
“It’s really important for us to look at our patients as individuals and not just as someone who has got a cancer diagnosis.
“They might have financial problems going on in their lives, be caring for an elderly patient or have a special needs child, you just don’t know.”
Like all areas of the health service, the unit is a busy one.
“On a recent morning we saw 80 patients in the morning and 35 in the afternoon. I was due to finish at 2.30pm but it was nearer to 3.30pm. But I didn’t mind — there’s give and take.
“We are under pressure like all areas but we do the best we can.
“We could do with more staff but at the same time we feel we’re doing a good job. We’re all cogs in the same wheel, from the nurses, housekeeping, our porter, care assistants, consultants. They’re all so important to the unit and I think we all add to what’s a good atmosphere and that’s important for the women coming in.”
Ber has naturally seen many women over the years and witnessed lots of happy, and not so happy endings.
“A colleague of mine says that we see patients through their diagnosis and back to a new, normal life. Because sometimes these things change us.”
She feels women are getting better at self-checks while at the same time cancer treatments are improving all the time.
“It’s simply phenomenal the progress that has been made since I started nursing. Back in the ’70s it was a case of just getting on with it.”
Ber is aware her journey through illness was a positive one and she wears a ring made by her brother every day to remind her of that.
“My brother Patrick is a jeweller and after my illness he made me a ring with a big pink stone in it, which I regard as my ‘positive’ out of all of it. I wear it every day.
“I can’t see into the future but can only say I feel blessed and privileged. I was due to retire last year but it’s hard to give up something you love — I’m just not ready yet.”