'I was looking at my newborn son and visualising my funeral'

Cork Pink Week is currently underway and runs until Sunday, October 7. We have dedicated this week’s WOW! to the campaign and feature personal stories of women who have fought the disease, who outline where they found the best support, and we tell you how you can support the fundraiser.
'I was looking at my newborn son and visualising my funeral'
Ursula Fitzgerald with her family.

“SORRY? That’s something you read in magazines. It’s not what happens to me. It can’t be right.”

This was the incredulous reaction from Ursula Fitzgerald when, 32 weeks pregnant with her second child, she was told she had breast cancer.

The 43 year old old mother-of-two, who lives in Glenville, recalls finding a lump in her breast when she was moisturising her skin to prevent stretch marks. She told her husband. It was a Friday night. After making an appointment with her GP the following Monday, Ursula was told that the lump was probably pregnancy-related and could be an infected or blocked milk duct.

However, just to be safe, Ursula was seen at the Breast Care Unit at CUH within ten days, accompanied by her husband, Gordon. She was physically examined, she had an ultrasound examination and a mammogram. There was also a biopsy. Ursula was told she would be contacted with the results.

She met Margaret Shanahan, who was to become her breast cancer nurse.

About a week or so later, Ursula had a maternity hospital appointment. Gordon couldn’t make it because of work pressures so her mother accompanied her.

Margaret Shanahan left a message on Ursula’s phone to say her results were expected that morning. Ursula was able to call to the Breast Care Unit after her maternity appointment.

Breast surgeon, Louise Kelly and Margaret Shanahan sat Ursula down and told her the bad news.

“Because I was in my third trimester, they wanted to move things along in terms of delivery of the baby. First, I had a lumpectomy and I was told that it was oestrogen positive. This was good news as it meant I could go on Tamoxifen for five or ten years.”

A micromet was found in Ursula’s first lymph node; “It was a tiny break-out cell. The cancer hadn’t spread to my lymph nodes. Because of the technology, it was detected. Five years previously, it wouldn’t have been picked up.”

When Ursula met her oncologist, Seamus O’Reilly, he said he believed “in throwing everything at it and giving it our best shot”.

“I had to go back to my obstetrician to plan the delivery. Conor was induced at 37 and a half weeks. I had to give birth early so I could start the treatment.

“Conor weighed six pounds and seven ounces at birth, on November 20, 2014. I had six weeks of recovery before starting the chemotherapy on December 30. It was a very stressful Christmas. I’ll never forget it. There were sleepless nights with the new baby. I’d be lying in bed and we’d be talking. I was visualising my own funeral.”

Ursula, who had her hair shaved off, finished chemotherapy on June 8, 2015.

“I had a major anaphylactic reaction to my second lot of chemo. My medication was changed and there were very few side-effects from it, which was great.”

Ursula says that pre-cancerous cells were found around the tumour which hadn’t showed up on the mammogram.

“In a woman under 50, the breast tissue is more dense and obviously, with me having been pregnant, my breast tissue was completely different to normal breast tissue. I had to have the margins cleared.

“But the fear was that because the pre-cancerous cells hadn’t shown up on the mammogram, could mammograms be trusted going forward until I was 50?

“I’m a worrier. In the end, it was my choice to have a mastectomy and immediate reconstruction. That happened about four weeks after my chemotherapy had finished. When I woke up after the surgery, it felt like I was after being knocked down by a bus. But every day, it got better. I was in hospital for eight days. I was an emotional wreck. My oncologist pointed out to me that the minute my tumour was removed, my cancer was gone. I was told that a lot of recovery is about remaining positive. Stress is not good for anybody. I had had stage 2 breast cancer. It was early enough but it was aggressive at the same time.”

Six months after the surgery, Ursula’s reconstruction had to be revised as the shape wasn’t quite right.

“That was the end of it then. Now, every six months, I got to my oncologist. I go for my mammogram in March and I see my breast surgeon every September. It has been four years now. The experience was awful.

“When my hair grew back, I kept it short. I have a communion next May (her son, Adam’s big day out) and I really want to give it a chance to grow. I feel I have aged ten years. My skin isn’t the same and worry adds years to you. It was very traumatic.”

But having said that, Ursula sings the praises of the Breast Care Unit and her surgeon and dedicated nurse.

“They really could not have done enough. When I was in hospital for my mastectomy, Margaret Shanahan came to see me twice a day and would take me out of the ward for a change of scenery.”

Ursula went to ARC House for counselling but soon decided she didn’t need it.

“They were fantastic. The counsellor I spoke to was brilliant. But I said that I’m a very practical person and unless I was going to be told that I’d never be sick again, I’ll manage everything else myself.

“I have great support from my husband, my sisters, my parents and friends. Gordon did all the night feeds when Conor was a new baby because I just didn’t have the energy.”

There is no history of breast cancer in Ursula’s family. She also wasn’t one for examining her breasts, but that has changed. She stresses the importance of self-examination and she is totally supportive of Cork Pink Week.

“I had some tenderness in my other boob in January of this year. I got it checked. There was nothing wrong. It was just hormones.”

Looking back, Ursula says: “You think this will never happen to you. But it does happen to normal people.”

The message is to be vigilant about any changes in your breasts.

* For more on how to get involved in Cork Pink Week see www.corkpinkweek.ie

Know your norm. Check your breasts regularly.
Know your norm. Check your breasts regularly.

BREAST CANCER SYMPTOMS 

Symptoms of breast cancer may include any of the following:

A change in size or shape — it may be that one breast has become larger.

Changes in the nipple — in direction or shape, pulled in or flattened nipple.

Changes on or around the nipple — rash, flaky or crusted skin.

Changes in the skin — dimpling, puckering or redness.

‘Orange peel’ appearance of the skin caused by unusually enlarged pores.

Swelling in your armpit or around your collarbone.

A lump, any size, or thickening in your breast.

Constant pain in one part of your breast or armpit.

The Irish Cancer Society says: “If you do notice any change in your breasts, see your doctor as soon as possible. Remember that most breast changes are not cancer and are harmless. When your doctor examines your breasts she or he may be able to reassure you that there is nothing to worry about. If the change could be connected with your hormones, your doctor may ask you to come back at a different stage in your menstrual cycle.

“Alternatively, you may be sent to a breast clinic for a more detailed examination. Don’t worry that you may be making an unnecessary fuss and remember that nine out of ten breast lumps are harmless.” 

HOW TO CHECK YOUR BREASTS 

Know what is normal for you, so that if any unusual changes occur, you will recognise it.

Get into the habit of looking at and feeling your breasts from time to time.

Look for changes by using a mirror so that you can see the breasts from different angles.

Feel for changes — an easy way of feeling your breast is with a soapy hand in the bath or shower. Some women prefer to feel for changes while lying down.

FIVE POINT AWARENESS CODE

Know what is normal for you.

Know what changes to look for.

Look and feel your breasts.

Discuss any changes with your GP without delay.

Attend routine breast screening if you are aged between 50 and 64. You can register for BreastCheck by calling freephone 1800 45 45 55.

DID YOU KNOW?

Early diagnosis is a key to surviving breast cancer.

More than 2600 new cases of breast cancer are diagnosed in Ireland each year.

Irish women have a 1 in 12 chance of developing breast cancer in their lifetime.

74% of Irish women with breast cancer discovered the lump themselves.

Only about five to ten per cent of breast cancers are believed to have a family link.

The risk of developing breast cancer increases with age. Approximately 80%of breast cancers occur in women over 50 years.

Around 22 men develop breast cancer in Ireland each year.

DIAGNOSIS QUESTIONS

If you are diagnosed with breast cancer, ask your specialist doctor or breast care nurse, ask:

What is the type and extent of the breast cancer?

What’s my prognosis?

What are my treatment options and how soon can they start?

Should I continue taking HRT or the Pill?

Are there any changes I should make to make to my lifestyle (diet, exercise, smoking)?

Will I be able to carry on working?

Are my female relatives at a higher than average breast cancer risk?

Can I have tests to find out if the cancer has spread to other parts of my body?

Are there any clinical trials that I might be able to participate in?

What services does this hospital provide to help me through this?

Who can I telephone later if I’m worried about diagnosis and treatment?

For more see www.cancer.ie

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