I was young, fit and healthy ...but I still got breast cancer

A Carrigaline-based mother of two shares her breast cancer story as she helps launch a major fundraising drive this June for Breast Cancer Ireland, writes CHRIS DUNNE
I was young, fit and healthy ...but I still got breast cancer

Madeleine McCoole (breast cancer survivor and 100k in 30 Days Event Ambassador) who lives in Carrigaline. Picture: Leon Farrell/Photocall Ireland

WE all know that checking our breasts regularly is a good idea, because early detection of breast cancer is key to a better outcome. But none of us know how we’d react if we found a lump.

Madeleine McCoole, living in Carrigaline, is mum to Alec, aged seven and Aaron, aged five. She didn’t pay much attention to the lump she found in her right breast three years ago while she was in the shower.

“I didn’t pay much heed to it,” recalls Madeleine, who was 42 at the time.

“It was actually this time three years ago. I ignored it for a couple of weeks.”

Life was good for the close-knit family, who re-located from Dublin to Cork last year.

“I felt I was young, fit and healthy with two young kids,” says Madeleine.

Madeleine with her sons will be running 100K in 30 Days in June. Picture: Leon Farrell/Photocall Ireland
Madeleine with her sons will be running 100K in 30 Days in June. Picture: Leon Farrell/Photocall Ireland

She didn’t know for certain if she was feeling anything in her breast.

“I felt around and I wasn’t really sure if I had felt a lump or not,” says Madeleine, who has signed up as an event ambassador for the 100km Days challenge for Breast Cancer Ireland.

Organisers are hoping 20,000 people will take part in the virtual event, this June. Proceeds will go towards life-saving research and the provision of breast-health education and awareness programmes nationwide.

When Madeleine found a lump, she reassured herself that all would be well.

“I thought, ‘it’ll be fine’,” she says.

But it wasn’t fine.

“The lump became more obvious and more solid,” says Madeleine.

“And I knew that I needed to get it checked. So when I was at the doctor with my son for another reason; I mentioned it. Two weeks later I was called for a mammogram at the breast clinic in St Vincent’s Hospital, Dublin. Before my husband, Adrian, and I relocated to Cork last May, we lived in Dublin and I’m originally from Tipperary. I have a brother and sister living here so we moved here to be closer to family and we love it. Carragaline is a great spot!”

When Madeleine had a mammogram, she also had an ultra-sound and a biopsy the same day.

“When I met the consultant, he said he it was ‘nasty’ and that he was concerned,” Madeleine explains.

“I was diagnosed with a grade-three tumour.”

She must have been very concerned at the shock diagnosis, especially being young, fit, and healthy?

“Yes, I did have a little cry when I got outside,” admits Madeleine. “But a week after the diagnosis. I was fine.”

Madeleine with her sons Alec McGarry (7) and Aaron McGarry (5), who live in Carrigaline, County Cork. Pictures: Leon Farrell/Photocall Ireland
Madeleine with her sons Alec McGarry (7) and Aaron McGarry (5), who live in Carrigaline, County Cork. Pictures: Leon Farrell/Photocall Ireland

She had a lot to be grateful for.

“I got it at stage one, which was brilliant and so important,” says Madeleine.

“I’m flagging the importance to get checked early. You may think the lump is probably nothing. But get anything unusual checked as the cancer can spread quite quickly.”

Stage three cancer means the breast cancer has extended to beyond the immediate region of the tumour and may have invaded nearby lymph nodes and muscles but has not spread to distant organs. Although this stage is considered to be advanced there are a growing number of effective treatment options.

Once diagnosed, Madeleine acted promptly to get her breast cancer treated.

“If I had ignored it for any longer, my diagnosis probably would have been very different.”

On May 10, 2018, Madeleine had a lumpectomy to remove the lump on her right breast and her lymph nodes were examined in her arm-pit close to her breast to detect if the cancer had spread.

“The location of the lump was on the right side of my breast, close to my arm-pit,” says Madeleine.

“There’s a tiny scar and a little indentation on the site where the lump was removed. It wasn’t a big lump. There was a bit of swelling after it was removed and a little scar tissue.”

Madeleine was in and out of the hospital within 24 hours.

“It was a day procedure. I went in to hospital in the morning and I was out again in the afternoon.”

Madeleine was one of the lucky ones.

“I was told when I received my diagnosis that my cancer was one of the more treatable cancers. 97% of people recovered from it and survived it.”

Madeleine’s invasive ductal carcinoma showed the cancer was hormone receptor positive, ie. where certain proteins, oestrogen or progesterone are present to fuel cancer growth, so she was offered chemotherapy treatment.

“Also, the oncotype genetic test that tests 21 genes in the tumour can determine the likelihood of the cancer returning,” says Madeleine.

“My test results came out high and I was oestrogen-receptor positive, so on that basis I had to have six months of chemotherapy treatment and three months of radiotherapy as a preventative measure against the cancer re-occurring.

“Because my cancer relied on oestrogen to grow, I had to have hormone treatment as well. Tamoxifen is a hormone therapy that blocks oestrogen from reaching the cancer cells.”

Madeleine McCoole with husband Adrian McGarry and their children Alec and Aaron Picture: : Leon Farrell/Photocall Ireland
Madeleine McCoole with husband Adrian McGarry and their children Alec and Aaron Picture: : Leon Farrell/Photocall Ireland

“It wasn’t nice,” says Madeleine. “But it’s not as bad as you think. Yes, I felt drained of energy at times and I felt run down sometimes. I felt queasy. There were side effects from the hormone therapy. Then, going on Zoladex, I suffered from migraines every so often. I was still able to function though. I took sick leave from work, I was working in a bank at the time.”

Madeleine made good use of her time off.

“I started a blog! I thought, sharing my own story, I could help others. I offered practical tips like what moisturiser to use while going through treatment.

“I have a huge interest in health and wellbeing,” says Madeleine, who also made more good use of her time off work to study for her coaching diploma.

By her side through it all was her husband Adrian.

Friends and family rallied around her too and helped boost Madeleine’s spirits throughout her cancer journey.

“One of my friends from Cork offered me his man boobs!” says Madeleine laughing.

“Things like that get you through the serious thing you’re going through.”

Madeline had everyone in her corner.

“Adrian’s family were a great support. My own mother went through her own cancer journey. We lost her back in November. Her positive attitude had a great effect on me. We shared a few tough months and we shared lovely, happy moments.”

Madeline’s positive attitude to share her own breast cancer experience is re-enforcing the message to check our bodies regularly and to get anything that appears unusual checked out.

“My diet was good and there was no history of breast cancer in my family. My mother sadly died of cancer of the womb.

“My message to people is, whatever might appear slight or silly, get checked. Err on the side of caution. Early detection is the difference between life and death, boobs or no boobs, a treatment plan to prevent the return of your cancer or a treatment plan to try and prolong your life with incurable cancer.

“Don’t hang around. Don’t be fooled into thinking just because you’re young and healthy you’re immune to breast cancer. I breast-fed both my sons for seven months, which is supposed to help reduce the risk of breast cancer. Cancer doesn’t discriminate.”

Madeleine isn’t hanging around, training hard and fighting fit to do 100km in 30 days to help essential funding for Breast Cancer Ireland. Registration for the event is now open.

“I began doing couch to 5km in the summer,” says Madeleine. “I’d kept up the walking and then began running. Now I’m doing a 5km route every day and running it three days. I love the opportunity to raise awareness and raise funds for cancer research that will make a difference to others. People can survive cancer and thrive after cancer.”

She has another important message for people going through a cancer journey: “You’re braver than you think you are.”

She’s also passionate about living life to the full.

“I treasure all the moments and imperfections. I keep a journal and note all the things I am grateful for in my life. Me and the boys do it together. I am grateful for how lucky we are.”

To register for the upcoming fundraiser, see 100kin30days.ie The event is open to casual strollers, keen walkers, joggers and seasonal runners of any age. See https://www.breastcancerireland.com/events/100k-in-30-days/

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