Mum of two from West Cork, recovered from breast cancer, urges others to get checked

Mum of two, Claire Hayden, was diagnosed with breast cancer last year. She shares her story with MARTINA O’DONOGHUE having come out the other side - and urges women not to delay getting any symptoms checked out
Mum of two from West Cork, recovered from breast cancer, urges others to get checked

Claire Hayden at Bantry House, West Cork. She was 38 when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Pictures: Dan Linehan

YOU made it, You’re through, This thing, it didn’t get a hold of you.”

Those are the opening lines of a song called Piece By Piece, written by a West Cork woman in response to her journey through serious illness. The woman is Claire Hayden from Bantry and “this thing” was breast cancer.

The story starts in September, 2020, when Claire, at the age of 38, woke up one night with a pain in her left breast.

“I put my hand to where the pain was and I found a lump the size of a grape; not very big at all but just enough that you’d notice it. So I didn’t sleep great that night,” she recalls.

To her credit, she didn’t waste any time getting it examined. While she went to work the next day – as an SNA in Coomhola National School – she found time to ring her GP, who told her to call in that evening. Her GP referred her for triple assessment in CUH, where she found herself four days later, accompanied on the trip by her husband Steve.

Having undergone treatment succecssfully, Claire Hayden is now back at work. Picture Dan Linehan
Having undergone treatment succecssfully, Claire Hayden is now back at work. Picture Dan Linehan

Hoping she was going to be told it was just a cyst, she headed in for her mammogram, followed by an ultrasound. It was when she was told that a doctor was going to repeat the ultrasound that she started to feel nerves creeping in.

“Do you know that feeling at the pit of your tummy”, she says, remembering the moment.

The doctor was chatty initially but as the ultrasound proceeded she felt the room get quieter. She pleaded with him to be frank with her about what he thought it was and he revealed it was cancer but they wouldn’t know more until the biopsies came back.

“My head was just spinning. You’re just in a haze. I’m walking back out to my husband’s face smiling at me but I couldn’t even look at him. 

"And then you’re sitting having the cup of tea that no-one wants to have in the room that no-one wants to go in, with the cancer nurse talking you through the biopsies.”

She is full of praise for all the medical staff she met that day.

“They couldn’t have been nicer. You are just so minded. I think there were tears flowing down my face when I was having the biopsies done and the nurse was rubbing my hand. You’re minded but at the same time you’re numb. It was a morning that your whole world changed in a blink of an eye and you are catapulted into a world where now cancer is everywhere. Every thought you have the cancer surrounds it. And everything else that was your life is in a cloud of fog. I didn’t know how to process it.”

There was a ten day wait for biopsy results, at which point she was told that it was Invasive Ductal Carcinoma, Grade three – an aggressive form of cancer – but caught at stage one. It was HER2 positive but hormone negative. She was told that a mastectomy would be necessary and the surgery was scheduled for ten days later.

Due to Covid restrictions she could have no visitors, but again recalls the “phenomenal” doctors and nurses.

“I had no pain because they were on top of it so much in the days that followed the mastectomy. The treatment and care you get is unbelievable”.

But while she was recovering well physically, the emotional side was harder to navigate at times.

“Looking at my body after I woke up after surgery, it was hard. You want to just go home and see your family but you’re looking at this body and you don’t know who it is because it doesn’t feel like yours anymore,” she says.

Her surgery was followed by six rounds of chemotherapy over a total of 18 weeks, finishing in March, 2021. She admits she couldn’t have envisioned how tough it was going to be.

“I had no idea. And I don’t say that meaning to frighten anyone facing into it. I say it with admiration for all the people who go through it; the days when you can’t lift your head off the pillow, but you still get back up again. We are still mammies or daughters, there’s school runs, there’s life, and we still plough on and do our best.

“There were times when I had to go into hospital, sometimes eight days at a time, just to bring my white cell count back up. 

"I remember thinking, ‘how am I going to get strong again?’ Because when you’re in the chemo fog you don’t know how you’re ever going to feel like yourself again. But you do. That fog lifts.”

While perhaps no-one can be fully prepared for the rigours of chemo, Claire certainly appreciated the straight talking from her consultant, Professor Seamus O’Reilly, when it began.

“I remember him saying, ‘Your chemo is going to be very tough; you’re young, the cells are multiplying very quickly. If your cancer is aggressive we need to be equally aggressive in our chemo plan for you’. I remember he said, ‘Chemo kills everything except you. It attacks all the badness but it attacks all the goodness too’. I was so grateful for that actually because in the days when I ended up in hospital, I remember thinking he had me prepared for that.”

Claire Hayden is urging others not to delay getting symptoms checked, to raise awareness during Breast Cancer Awareness Month.  Picture Dan Linehan
Claire Hayden is urging others not to delay getting symptoms checked, to raise awareness during Breast Cancer Awareness Month.  Picture Dan Linehan

Claire managed to focus on the lighter side of life, especially around her two sons Cian, now 13, and Michael, 10. She told them they were going to have fun ordering wigs online and how she was going to save a fortune at the hairdressers, so they could redirect the saved money towards a holiday.

“I would always have had a ‘glass half full’ approach to life and even now my thought process is that there are better days ahead and things are going to get better all the time.”

However, she admits that it isn’t always easy.

“There were days when I wasn’t positive and I wasn’t strong and I couldn’t even pretend to be. There were days when I’d drop the kids to school and I was just so emotional and felt completely overwhelmed, but overall I tried to stay positive when I could. 

"That doesn’t mean you have to be strong all the time. It’s good to cry, it’s good to say, ‘I’m scared’. I had those moments too.”

In those moments, music helped her to get back on a positive track.

“I’d head off for a walk when I needed to get out in the fresh air, pop in my earphones and listen to music. Music can be really healing,” she says.

Claire is blessed with musical talent of her own and one day channelled all her thoughts into writing a new song, Piece By Piece. It was subsequently recorded at Wavefield studios in Clonakilty and a video was shot compliments of AV3 Media. It was filmed a few months after Claire’s treatment, with her hair growing back. She hadn’t been without her wig much at that point but she ditched it for the video, adamant that she wanted to do the subject matter justice and she wanted it to be ‘real’.

The song is available to download on all digital platforms, with all the proceeds going to Breast Cancer Ireland, for which Claire has become an ambassador.

It’s already got to number one on the Ireland itunes chart for singer-songwriters.

Claire also found an ardent supporter in Imelda May, who has shared the video on her own social media channels and invited her to sing songs with her on Instagram Live during her treatment.

“She’s an amazingly kind-hearted woman who looks for nothing in return. She sent me the most beautiful flowers when I finished chemo and has been in touch a lot since I was diagnosed,” says Claire.

Imelda has even asked her to sing a few songs at her Vicar Street show in Dublin next May. More recently, Claire was also invited to join Irish Women in Harmony. So, for the woman who has been through the mill, there is much to look forward to.

She’s clear that she got through with the help of wonderful family and friends.

“The support I’ve had has been unbelievable. They are a constant reminder of what’s important. My husband has been my rock since day one. His strength in how he handled everything kept me strong. And my family and friends, they just wrapped me up, even when I didn’t know they were doing it.”

She’s conscious that cancer has had an impact on her sons too, although her over-riding thought is that they have learned something positive.

“It made my children a little less fearful of the word cancer,” she explains. “They see cancer as something that I recovered from. And while I was sick and it was very hard, they know I’m going to be okay. I’m sure they have their worries but overall kids are amazingly resilient and I saw that with my two lads. I was so proud of how they handled it.”

Claire’s cancer journey has changed her too.

“I don’t know if you’re ever the same after, but in ways you are stronger because of what you’ve been through. I have no control over what comes next but I choose to live like cancer is done with me. I have a spring in my step any day I feel healthy. Before, I didn’t know that because I always felt healthy.

“Compared to those months with chemo, I have a whole new gratitude for feeling good now.”

This month highlights her progress, as she’ll finish taking the immunotherapy drug, Herceptin, and she returns to work.

As October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, Claire is pleading with women to be aware of the signs.

“It doesn’t necessarily have to be a lump. It’s any change we notice in our bodies; anything that doesn’t sit right with us. It can be pain, a swelling of the breast, a reddening of the breast, a change in size.

“The quicker we present to our GPs, the more any follow-up will be set in motion and the better chance for early detection if, God forbid, it does turn out to be cancer. Don’t delay. It’s not next week; today is the day.”


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