My aunts and grandmother had breast cancer... then I found a lump

As part of Cork Pink Week, we continue our series of interviews with women who have fought the disease. Here Chris Dunne talks to Sarah Conroy about the support she received from the Marie Keating Foundation.
My aunts and grandmother had breast cancer... then I found a lump
Sarah Conroy.

WHEN you emerge from a life-altering breast cancer diagnosis, you are never the same. You don’t return to your old life. You move on.

Sarah moved on with her life with help from the Marie Keating Foundation’s ‘Survive and Thrive’ workshop programme and by moving house.

“Moving to Crosshaven was a huge move for us, but it was right for Bernard and I,” says Sarah Conroy, who was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer in 2010 when she was 41.

“We downsized and we gained more headspace. My husband, Bernard, had lived in the same place for more than 40 years, so it was a big move for him,” says Sarah. “We both love it here near the sea.”

Sarah was in unfamiliar territory when she discovered a lump on her breast — even though she knew what the consequences could be.

“Both my aunts and my grandmother had breast cancer,” says Sarah. “It has not been kind to us. When I discovered a lump on my breast, I went to the Breast Care Specialist Unit at the Bons Secours in Cork, where I underwent tests and biopsies. I got the results back in a week.”

The news, although swift, wasn’t good.

“On January 29, I got the dreadful news that I had breast cancer,” says Sarah. “Even though you do not want to wait forever for the results, it is still hard to hear you have cancer. That was on a Friday and I had a lumpectomy on the following Tuesday. I didn’t have to stay in hospital overnight, but I took a week to recover.”

It took longer to process the diagnosis and what it meant to the young couple’s lives.

“Looking back, the shock was hard to process,” says Sarah. “We were numb. Awaiting the results; we knew it was either black or white. One word, ‘cancer’, is a severe blow to get.”

The treatment following Sarah’s breast cancer diagnosis was severe.

“I started eight chemotherapy treatment sessions in March.”

Sarah’s once-reliable body became vulnerable.

“Unfortunately, I got a really bad chest infection and I had to spend a week in hospital,” she says. “That was scary. You realise how vulnerable your body becomes. You go through the awful hair loss. Your nails and eyebrows literally fall off. It is a terrible ordeal.”

Sarah never felt ill before her treatment started.

“People say to you, ‘You must have known’,” says Sarah. “‘You must have felt sick’ or ‘You must have felt ill’. But that’s not the case,” says Sarah. “I never felt ill at all.”

While the chemotherapy treatment was gruelling. Sarah felt more tired after her radiotherapy treatment, 25 sessions in all.

“The accumulation of the sessions really took it out of me,” says Sarah.

During all of this, she wanted to retain her former sense of independence.

“I drove myself to my hospital appointments after six months,” says Sarah. “It was the one thing I insisted on. I felt it was a huge achievement for me and when I felt tired and drained after I got home, I went to bed.”

And she rallied.

“Thankfully, the cancer hadn’t spread to the lymph nodes,” says Sarah.

The familiar narrative, discovering a lump, the shock of diagnosis, the trauma of chemotherapy, losing your hair, eyebrows and eyelashes, is difficult to come back from. But Sarah did come back and she moved on with her life, despite losing her dad and her aunt within 12 months of each other.

“That was really hard,” she says.

She realised that others who had been on the same journey as her were able to move on and get back on track with their lives.

“I joined the Marie Keating ‘Survive and Thrive’ eight-week workshop programme being run in Cork at the Kingsley Hotel,” says Sarah.

“I saw a post on Facebook about the programme and I applied. The workshops are run by experts who cover elements like post-cancer care, nutrition, mindfulness and exercise,” says Sarah.

“Every week a different topic was covered. I realised I was not alone. For a while I had my head in the sand. Now I wanted to put it all behind me and not dwell on it ever again.”

She felt human again.

“I came back to myself and I was ready to move on,” says Sarah. “The Marie Keating workshop offered me great support and I found my niche there. Others were in the same boat as I was and we could openly talk about our cancer experiences.

“I began to write everything down and I found that very therapeutic.”

Life is good now for Sarah and Bernard, living in an idyllic location and with a promising future to look forward to.

“I have a good, positive outlook on life now and I don’t sweat the small stuff,” says Sarah.

“Bernard and I are married 20 years this year and we love where we live, near the sea with fresh air on our doorstep. I grew up in Bantry near the sea, so I love it. Soon, it will be 10 years on from my breast cancer diagnosis. I don’t look back.”

The Marie Keating ‘Survive and Thrive’ workshops and seminars have been created to help men and women who have finished cancer treatment to adapt to new normal.

Advice from experts is available on issues that cancer survivors often face, including coping with emotions, managing stress, and physical activity.

The Marie Keating Foundation funds three purpose-built mobile information units staffed by a specialist nurse which travel around Ireland to bring life-saving messages of prevention and early detection to as many people as possible.

The service is free of charge to community groups, schools and colleges. People can talk in private to the nurse or on board the unit about any concerns they might have about cancer.

There are two mobile information units based in Cork, covering all of Munster. The specialist nurses are Maeve Fitzgerald and Eileen O’Riordan.

Maeve says: “This is a special year for the Marie Keating Foundation, 20 years in existence, founded after the death of Marie Keating. Our collective aim is to make cancer less frightening by enlightening, raising awareness, providing a community information service offering cancer information, including the most common causes of cancer in men and women, the risk factors of cancer and early detection, making cancer issues more easily understood and less daunting.

“There are 3,516 people diagnosed annually with breast cancer. Eight out of 10 cases occur in women over fifty; 709 die annually from the breast cancer. There are 37,346 breast cancer survivors in Ireland.”

The Marie Keating Foundation provides:

School Cancer Awareness Programmes

Survive and Thrive Workshop programme for people after cancer treatment

Positive Living programme for those living with mesa static cancer.

The Comfort Fund aims to help people who may struggle financially while going through their cancer journey, aiming to help patients focus on their health and loved ones. It is accessed through the individual’s medical team.

See: info@mariekeating.ie or phone: 01-6283726.

For more on Cork Pink Week which continues until October 7 see www.corkpinkweek.ie

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