IT’S a topless shot. A young, beautiful, blonde woman glances sideways out of a large window; the sunlight beaming through sheer white curtains.
Her photo is presented in stark black and white. But the most striking thing about the picture is that the woman is missing her right breast. A scar runs through where it used to be.
It’s the first photograph that greets you on www.mywonkyboob.ie, a blog recently created by Mandy Gabriel, a 40-year-old Cork woman undergoing breast cancer treatment.
It’s a brave move, putting her story out there, so honestly and graphically, but Mandy is grabbing our attention because she has many important points she wants to share.
The first is that not every case of breast cancer begins with the detection of a lump, so she wants everyone to know their own norm when it comes to their breasts. Through her experience, she has become something of an expert on a subject she would never have chosen to be an expert on. Along the way she has learned that 10% of breast cancer cases don’t present with a lump. Her diagnosis also came as a shock, considering there is no family history of the disease.
Life had been happy and busy up until that awful day last December when she was diagnosed with Stage Three, Grade Three, Invasive Lobular Breast Cancer.
“I had two children, Isabelle, who was then four and Edward, who was one. I had gone back to work after maternity leave and myself and Ronan were saving to buy a house.
“Holidays were on the back-burner, changing cars was on the back-burner. We were renting in Ballincollig and I was up and down to Kinsale with my job.”
So far so perfectly normal for Mandy, who was working as sales and marketing manager at the Carlton Hotel in Kinsale, now re-named the Macdonald Hotel. She had previously worked in a similar role in the Rochestown Park Hotel, which is where she met her partner Ronan, now general manager of the Oriel House Hotel in Ballincollig. And it was at a glamorous hotel function that she started to more seriously consider whether there was an issue with her breast.
After her second pregnancy when her breasts had been bigger (a regular occurrence in pregnancy), she noticed that one went back to normal but the other remained bigger. She went to her GP at that stage, was sent to CUH for a mammogram and got the all-clear. Fast forward eight months to her night out with hotel acquaintances and the appearance of her breasts was still not normal to Mandy.
“On the night of the Irish Hotel Federation Ball, I had worn a v-necked red dress and I thought I was a bit booby in it — on one side only. I spent the whole night sitting up straight.
Next day I was talking to Alison, a friend at work, and I said, ‘I’m never wearing that dress again’. She said, ‘Would you not get it checked out?’ I told her I already had, and she said ‘Would you not do it again?’”
Alison’s encouraging words may well have been the most important words she has ever spoken because Mandy returned to her GP, where she felt the atmosphere was different this time. As soon as she left the room, Mandy’s GP contacted the hospital and at 3.30pm on the same day she got a call from a breast cancer nurse at CUH, who asked her to come in the following week.
“I was in the car listening to Matt Cooper and he was talking to Georgie Crawford in Dublin. She had one child, she was around my age and she’d been diagnosed with breast cancer. As I was listening, I thought, ‘God love her’, and then I thought, ‘Jesus, Mandy, it could soon be ‘God love you’”.
As it turns out, Mandy was only two weeks behind Georgie in treatment after she got the dreaded confirmation of her illness, following a mammogram, biopsy and ultrasound. There was still uncertainty as to how far the cancer might have spread: “A consultant said to me, ‘You’re in the house of cancer now. There is a lift and three floors. The cancer could still be in the lift or the lift doors could have opened and it could be on any floor’”.
Mandy would discover that her cancer had indeed left ‘the lift’. From then everything happened fast. She was told there was an opening on Monday, December 18 for surgery — just ten days later. While it would be understandable to recoil in horror at the thought of a mastectomy, Mandy did not hesitate.
“I was totally fine with that. I was in fight or flight mode. I said ‘Whatever you need to do, do it — and we need to do it now’.”
She also underwent the removal of six lymph nodes and later an auxiliary node clearance.
Sitting on her bed, post-mastectomy, she was told that her cancer was now “in a bucket on the fifth floor of CUH”. But that was only the first step and chemotherapy was to follow.
“Scans can only find tumours,” she explains. “They can’t find rogue cells. There could be rogue cells… they could be in the lymph nodes. The lymph nodes are like the M50 roundabout for cancer to go anywhere it wants. So they use the term ‘mopping up’ for my five months of chemo. What my chemo was doing was chasing something microscopic.”
Throughout this time, a lot of her friends were in the dark about her condition.
“I knew people would say ‘God love you, you’re so young and you have small children. How are you going to cope?’ If I told people I’d have to support and comfort them. I didn’t want to cope with other people’s pity. I was trying to be my own best friend. So I pulled up the drawbridge and didn’t answer the door or the phone much,” she says.
She had terrific support from her partner, brother and sister and she reserves special praise for her friend Helen O’Driscoll, who she describes as “the kindest person in the world”; the person who stepped in whenever the children needed minding, allowing Mandy to go to her hospital appointments and concentrate on her recovery.
“She became a Mammy to all of us. I always knew I had a safety net,” she says.
Mandy also found her own form of therapy at Ballincollig Regional Park.
“Before I had kids I loved walking, running and jogging but when you have kids life gets so busy. Cancer reminded me of the things I do like to do, so I went back running with cancer.
“I went down to the Regional Park every day and I’d talk to myself. The blog has come about from talking to myself,” she says. She also downloaded books and podcasts; her audio material while she pounded the path. “Podcasts are the Netflix for walkers”, she adds.
Having been through surgery and chemotherapy — and currently in the middle of 15 sessions of radiotherapy — Mandy is also keen to reach out to people and help them to prepare for treatment (or “get ready for battle”, as she puts it.)
She was devastated at the thought of losing her hair but prior to it ever falling out, Ronan gave her a blade seven hair-cut and she discovered that short hair really suited her. So now she knows she’s only about two months away from having lovely hair again — not the two years it would take to regain her long tresses. Things like this help psychologically.
She got fitted for a wig at Origin Hair Design, where, she says, “they are better counsellors than anyone,” and she also prepared for the loss of hair by having her eyebrows tattooed on by Elizabeth Oakes. This saved her doing it after the fact, when she would have only been guessing where her eyebrows used to be.
Mandy says there is also a lot of “cancer admin” to take care of in terms of social welfare, mortgage, income protection, dealing with employers, etc, and she was keen to tackle this herself. “I’d say, ‘What can I do? I want to do my part’, and that gave me a bit of sanity. There’s no strength in being a victim. If someone makes you feel like a victim, you’ll feel powerless. I wanted to feel empowered by doing my bit.”
As Mandy’s cancer journey continues (after active treatment she will be prescribed a drug called Tamoxifen for a minimum of five years) she’ll be sharing her experiences on her blog, with wry humour and frankness, and displaying a great flow of speech and way with words. And why does she do it?
“To change the conversation about cancer,” she says. “It is no longer the death sentence it once was.”