I was first diagnosed with cancer in my breast and lymph nodes in March 1998. Doctors said I had a 20 per cent chance of survival. I was just 36 with 3 young children and have never felt so terrified or alone.
Initially I had a partial mastectomy but after 8 months of aggressive chemotherapy had to have the entire breast removed and a hysterectomy. Having my breast and womb taken from me I began to feel that I was being transformed from a woman into a man. By the end of that year my second breast was removed. Losing my breasts was devastating; especially as at the time my first breast was removed I didn’t have reconstructive surgery straightaway. Every time I got dressed or had a shower I was constantly reminded of my loss and the cancer.
I had to fight to have my breast reconstructed on the NHS and it was 18 months before the operation was carried out. When my second breast was removed, reconstruction was undertaken at the same time. I believe that all women who have a mastectomy should be offered reconstructive surgery at the time of their operation.
Although I had been through all sorts of scans and tests, surgery and chemotherapy which made me very ill one of the most frightening times for me was when my treatment ended and the doctors said ‘we’ll see you in three months’. You wonder who is watching the cancer, in three months you could be dead!
What I needed when I was diagnosed with cancer was someone to talk to who had been through it themselves and come out the other end. I put an advert in the North Belfast News asking if anyone with cancer would like to meet up. I got six calls that night! It was great just meeting these people. One of who was eight years down the line.
We found we were all experiencing the same feelings. Talking together helps; you start to learn how this cancer works.
From that initial advert in the local paper our group has expanded, first moving into the former Community Development Centre in Cliftonville Road and now to our own premises in Alliance Avenue. The house in Alliance Avenue draws cancer patients both Protestant and Catholic from North and West Belfast.
We are also involved in raising awareness in the local community about cancer and helping to tackle the low uptake of cancer screening in the area and eliminate some of the myths about cancer.
This work gives me something to focus on other than the cancer. The distraction was good. 18 months down the line from my diagnoses and I thought, hold on a minute, I’m still here.
You don’t forget you have cancer and I don’t believe I ever will. It’s in my thoughts every day I wake and think, is this the day it’s going to come back? But I learned I could walk alongside the cancer and have a life outside it, and also that you have gifts and strengths and you should tap into them.
Its been seven years now and I have a new focus in life, to reassure other cancer patients, to make cancer services better, and improved uptake of screening in the community and to let others who have got the bad news know that there if life after cancer!