THE last thing you expect to hear from someone who has had breast cancer is that it was the best thing that ever happened to them. But what Castletownbere-based Isabel O’Donovan means is that surviving breast cancer has made her more appreciative of the simple things in life.
“It changes your outlook,” says Isabel, a mother-of-two who runs Issie’s Handmade Chocolates in Castletownbere.
“There were loads of negatives. It was a horrific experience. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone but when you come out the other side, I just think you’re a better person with a better appreciation of life because you’re so happy to be here.
“You’re not as obsessed with material things or with career because the reality is that if you’re sick in hospital, no matter how much money you have, it can’t make you better.”
In 2011, aged 35, seemingly healthy and fit with no history of breast cancer in her family, Isabel found a tiny lump “the size of a pea” in her breast.
“I was checking my breasts because women are advised to do that. I went to the doctor the next day. He wasn’t that worried about it and assumed it was a cyst. He did say that if I continued to worry about it and it didn’t go away, I could come back to him.
“A week or two later, I was getting more concerned about it and I insisted on getting a mammogram at Cork University Hospital. The day after the mammogram, the hospital contacted me at 9am so I guessed I was in trouble. They wanted me to come back for a biopsy and an ultra sound.”
Despite her correct instinct, Isabel was shocked when it was confirmed that she would have to have surgery to remove the cancer they had found.
“I was only just 35, I was married with two small children and I had just opened my shop. In the broader scheme of things, life was good. When you’re young, you kind of think you’re invincible and that nothing is going to go wrong.
“The diagnosis was a massive blow to me. It brings you back down to earth with a bang.”
At the time, Isabel’s children, Tom and Josh, were aged six and three.
“We live in a small town. I knew everyone was going to know I had breast cancer before I’d even tell people so rather than the children hearing about it at school and pre-school, I decided to tell them about it. There was no fear on their part. I just explained to them that I had cancer, a disease that had to be taken out of me and that everything would be fine then.”
Isabel, who had to have a mastectomy, couldn’t help thinking about what she was going to do on the beach during holidays.
“I wanted to know if I could get reconstruction and how soon? I was operated on in the first week of September, 2011 having been diagnosed on July 19. The cancer hadn’t spread. It was early stage but was an aggressive enough form.
“I had the mastectomy and the reconstruction in the one operation. The doctors talked me through all the risks. I was happy enough to go with it, although mentally it was a lot to take in. They say a mastectomy is like an amputation in that a bit of your body is taken away.”
Surgery and reconstruction took six hours. Isabel was in hospital for a week.
“I wasn’t in pain as such. But the scars had to heal. I remember the drive home from CUH. I could feel every lump and bump on the road. It was horrible.”
Professional counselling was an option but Isabel didn’t go for that.
“What helped me most was talking to other women who lived relatively close to me who’d been through breast cancer. I’d go to their houses for a cup of coffee. In a way, they were my counsellors. They totally understood me.”
Isabel’s husband, Dave, was very supportive too. It was hard on him as his mother had died from cancer when he was a child.
Four weeks after surgery, Isabel started chemotherapy over a six month period as well as radiotherapy over six weeks.
“The chemotherapy was tough. The doctors tell you the truth about what it’s going to be like. I had good days and bad days and would be drained for a week after chemo. I had it every three weeks.”
Isabel’s mother drove her from West Cork to CUH for the treatment.
“It was a two-hour journey. Then I was in the ward from 11am to 3pm. I was trying to keep the routine at home as normal as possible. I had to have the radiotherapy every day. I wanted to travel up and down every day but after doing a week of that, it was exhausting. So I used to stay with an aunt in Cork every Wednesday night. That used to break up the week.”
After chemotherapy and radiotherapy, Isabel underwent about a year of hormone treatment.
“From diagnosis to when I was finished treatment, it was about a year and half. It threw everything upside down. You have your lovely normal little life and routine and it all goes.”
But Isabel managed to keep her business going, cutting down on the opening hours of her artisan chocolate and ice-cream shop, a business that of its nature is seasonal.
“We open for the busy summer months. During the winter when I was getting treatment, I used to open one day a week on Fridays. By the time the next summer came along, I was well on the way to recovery.”
Isabel is still in touch with the women that supported her during her ordeal. “They helped me so much. It’s about having an appreciation of life. I think we take things for granted. It’s lovely now to get up every day and to enjoy it.”
Describing herself as being “not over the top religious, at the same time I prayed like mad because I just wanted to get through it. I would have faith. I believe that what will be, will be.”
Isabel has been given the all clear from cancer and now has an annual mammogram and attends an oncologist twice a year. “They keep a very good eye on you afterwards which is lovely. The experience of cancer stays with you but I don’t obsess over it. I definitely now have more empathy for other people who might be suffering or have an illness.”
EVERY day in Ireland, eight women are diagnosed with breast cancer — they are your mothers, sisters, wives, daughters, nieces, friends, colleagues.
October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. During this time, the Irish Cancer Society is asking members of the public to hold a “Cups against Cancer” coffee morning with money raised going to fund breast cancer research and towards free services to support breast cancer patients and their families.
For information about hosting a “Cups against cancer” coffee morning, go to www.cancer.ie/cupsagainstcancer.
In Ireland, one in ten women will develop breast cancer during their lifetime. Around 3,000 women in Ireland get diagnosed with breast cancer every year.
Breast cancer is more common in women over the age of 50. However, women of any age can develop breast cancer. Early detection is your best defence.
If you’re concerned about breast cancer, call the Cancer Nurse line on Freefone 1800 200 700.