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‘I was 39, fit, healthy & active with no family history – cancer doesn’t care’

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October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, when health experts urge us to be aware of any breast changes and seek advice if we have any concerns. Over 3,350 women (and almost 30 men) are diagnosed with the disease every year in Ireland, and sadly almost 730 of those will die. But if the cancer is detected early, the outcome can be positive.

Lorraine White can attest to this. As an avid runner, businesswoman and mother-of-three, her life was very busy – and she never even had time to even entertain the idea of being ill.

But last summer, having noticed an odd puckering of the skin on her right breast, she rang the doctor immediately, even though she didn’t really think there was anything wrong.

“I found the abnormality by pure accident,” says the 40-year-old. “I had no signs or symptoms, was fit, healthy and extremely active. I was preparing for two 10k runs and a 16k one, and wasn’t sick or tired. I was living life as a normal, busy 39-year-old mother and wife – dropping the kids to school and their activities, running our business, eating well. A non-smoker, I take the odd drink but stay well within my limits. In my eyes, I was doing everything to keep myself fit and healthy.

“But last July, while I was waiting for the shower to heat up, I was in my dressing gown brushing my teeth in front of the mirror. The dressing gown was slightly open and, while I was yawning, I saw a little pucker which looked like a tiny bruise. When I dropped my hand down, it was gone, but as soon as I lifted it up, it was there again. So I rang the doctor, even though I thought it would be nothing – I was even going to ring back and cancel because I thought I was being silly, but I said I’d go, just to be sure.”

Lorraine, who runs AAA Taxis with her husband, Trevor, and also works as a DJ, went to see her GP the following morning. While the puckering was still evident, the doctor reassured her that there was probably nothing wrong, but she said she would refer her to the breast clinic, which Lorraine attended a fortnight later.

As with her own GP, the consultant couldn’t feel any abnormalities so asked a colleague for a second opinion. Again, the puckering was discussed, and a third doctor came to offer an opinion. This time, her armpits were examined and she was promptly sent for a triple test – mammogram, ultrasound and biopsy.

“I gowned up and went for my mammogram and ultrasound, and then they took seven biopsies,” says Lorraine. “They obviously couldn’t say I had cancer until the results were back, but I was then told that I needed a CT scan and a nuclear whole-body bone scan.”

The Clare woman was called back to receive her results and was devastated to be diagnosed with invasive lobular breast cancer, Stage 1B. “Everything was happening so fast and on the same day as the results, I had to have an MRI scan to see the size of the cancers. I was totally overwhelmed and hurting beyond words – and I felt a huge pressure to try and keep it all in, which was unbearable at times.

“I was so upset thinking about my children – no one could love them like me – and what would happen to my husband? We were childhood sweethearts and have been together for 22 years. I worried about telling my family and friends, and how Trevor would cope with running the house, the kids and the business. There were just so many emotions to deal with. Every thought imaginable entered my head – I was bursting with questions, but also with anger and sadness.”

A lumpectomy revealed that she had a 17mm tumour underneath her breast which had spread to the lymph nodes, resulting in eight of them being removed. And a month later, Lorraine returned for a second procedure to remove clear tissue from around the tumour, to ensure all of the cancer had been eradicated.

This was followed by four sessions of chemotherapy and 23 sessions of radiotherapy, which she began on her 40th birthday – and the day Ireland went into lockdown.

“I coped as best I could in the most horrible of times of my life,” she says. “My hair started falling out, I was extremely fatigued and bloated and had no eyelashes, so my eyes were really sore, itchy, red and watery. Walking up the stairs was like climbing a mountain – and I know this because I’ve climbed many mountains.

“My body was not mine. I did not recognise myself: I was bald, fat, ugly, bloated, puffy, scared, bruised and defeated. But I tried to keep bad days to a minimum and, when I even had the slightest bit of energy, would go to the beach or the woods to clear my head of negative thoughts. I had to accept that what was happening was not my fault.”

Lorraine, who has three children – Chloe (21), Lee (13) and Sophie (9) – finished her treatment on May 5, 2020, and will be taking medication for the next 10 years.

“Right now, I’m doing brilliantly. I am walking daily, eating really well, hiking a lot and slowly returning to myself,” she says. “My hair is coming back nice and thick, my eyelashes are returning, and I’m trying to return to where I was 12 months ago. But my story shows that there may not be definite signs of cancer, so knowing your body is the biggest key to early detection, followed by visiting the doctor with any worries.

“I was 39, fit, healthy, extremely active, no family history and had a healthy lifestyle, so it shows that self-checking and early detection are crucial. I didn’t do anything to deserve breast cancer – no one does, as cancer does not care. According to my surgeon, the 17mm lump was growing inside me for about 12 months and it had spread to my lymph nodes, so if I had waited or left it, it would have spread to my organs, my bones and other parts of my body – and I would be telling a different story today.”

For more information on how to be breast aware this October, visit mariekeating.ie

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