I want to be around to see my kids grow up

Diagnosed with breast cancer aged just 37, mum of two Sonya McWhinney later discovered she was genetically disposed to the disease. As part of our Cork Pink Week coverage, she tells EMMA CONNOLLY how she decided to fight it
I want to be around to see my kids grow up
Sonya McWhinney.

A MASTECTOMY, three months of chemo, radiotherapy, a hysterectomy and then a second mastectomy.

That’s the cancer journey that Sonya McWhinney found herself on after she found a lump in her breast, before discovering she was genetically disposed to the disease which prompted her to take radical action.

Her first mastectomy took place in 2010 when the mother of two, originally from Victoria Road and now living in Belgooly, was aged 37.

However post-surgery and treatment, she discovered through genetic testing that there would always be a high risk for cancer, and so, taking matters in to her own hands, she decided to have an elective hysterectomy and her second breast removed.

“It was a no-brainer for me,” said Sonya. “I want to be around to see my children grow up.”

Casting her mind back to 2010 when she found the lump and was diagnosed with stage 3 metastatic, Sonya is quite matter of fact: “I hadn’t been sick at all and had no symptoms other than the lump. I had two weeks to take in the diagnosis and then had the surgery.”

Shortly after her operation, it was discovered the cancer had spread to some of her sentinel nodes which required further surgery, before she could begin her chemo.

But at all times, and like most mothers, she said her initial concern was for her children. At the time Alicia was seven and Jacob was six.

Having lost her own father to bowel cancer when he was aged 43, and she was 17, she said she knew how they would be feeling.

Throughout the entire interview, Sonya keeps coming back to clinical nurse specialist in Breast Care at CUH, Yvonne Bohane, who she said made “the entire experience so much easier”.

“I could speak to her about so many things. And I’ll always remember that she told me ‘this is just one year of your life, you’ll go on to forget about it,’ and she was completely right.”

Chemo was tougher than Sonya expected. “Up until that stage, you can hide your illness but when you lose your hair it’s a constant visual reminder of what’s going on. Steroids also caused me to put on weight and everything combined just chips away at your confidence.”

Sonya started to lose her hair as early as her first chemo session and was fitted for a wig at the city-based Wig Clinic.

“They were really great there. They cut my hair into a short style first so I could get used to it and then gave me a wig in that style after I shaved it. You lose your brows and lashes as well. That was the hardest part for me.

“Meeting people as well was difficult as they don’t know how to react — I sort of hid away for the three months. You just don’t feel yourself when you’re having chemo.”

Again this is where Yvonne proved a great support.

“Her best advice was to mind myself, be kind to myself and to rest – and that’s what I did. My mum was able to help with the kids; so was my husband Stephen’s family and I’ve a huge circle of friends.

“The kids were actually fine. Yvonne had said to explain to them what was happening in age- appropriate terms because if I lied they’d know and assume the worst. So that’s what we did. We told them I was sick and would need medicine that would make my hair fall out. I think they just said ‘OK’ and asked what was for dinner!”

As well as the chemo, Sonya was put on a daily hormone tablet for six years called Tamoxifen.

“My cancer was caused by producing too many hormones which was stimulating the cancer — this reduces hormones,” she said.

It can cause side effects, but fortunately she tolerated it well. After the chemo was a daily dose of radiotherapy for six weeks after which she did find her mood slipping slightly.

“I had been warned about that but I thought I’d be fine. I did start to feel a bit sorry for myself but I found the strength in myself to get out of it again,” she said.

After the recommended one year wait, Sonya opted for reconstruction surgery.

“I spoke to Yvonne about it and she said ‘You’re only 38, your young with your life ahead of you’. It was the best thing I ever did. I’m normally a confident person, but cancer chips away at that and this really helped.”

During one of her more recent check-ups, Sonya happened to mention to her oncologist Dr Seamus O’Reilly that no-one on her father’s side had reached their 60s; that they had all died young. That prompted an examination of a biopsy from her cancer which showed she had Lymph Syndrome, a genetic condition that makes people more likely to develop certain cancers.

Her father passed away in 1990 and after Sonya’s results came back, a similar test was conducted on his biopsy and a link between the two was found. The information that the threat of cancer would always hang over her prompted Sonya to have an elective hysterectomy last November and she’ll shortly have a mastectomy.

“It was an easy decision to make — I’ve had my children and I want to see them grow up and be a part of their lives. It was a preventative measure.”

The obvious disadvantage is that Sonya literally woke up from her surgery in the middle of the menopause. But despite going through such a gruelling few years, she insists that cancer doesn’t dominate her, and it’s not something she thinks about that much.

“But it has helped me to find balance in life and I don’t sweat the small stuff any more. Family is what’s most important to me,” said Sonya, who works part time in EZ Living on the Pouladuff Road.

She’s full of praise for her entire medical team, including her consultant Martin O’Sullivan and oncologist Seamus O’Reilly, but again comes back to Yvonne.

“She is so positive, so caring, so plugged in. She knew how I was feeling before I did myself; she took an interest in my family; my kids, even my dog Coco. She’s a very steady character and gives great advice. Out of everyone I dealt with, she changed my life.”

A modest Yvonne said her advice to all women in Sonya’s situation is to take all help that’s offered and not, as women tend to do, put themselves bottom of the list.

“I’d also stress to them that there is light at the end of the tunnel, even if it’s hard to see when you’re in the cancer bubble.

“When women get their diagnosis it’s naturally on their minds day and night but when I see people like Sonya coming back for their check-ups, it’s amazing and shows the success in breast cancer treatments which has been revolutionised over the past 10 years.”

Cork Pink Week, aimed at raising awareness and funds to fight breast cancer runs until OCtober 7. For more about Cork Pink Week and how you can support it, see www.corkpinkweek.ie

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