“Breast cancer isn’t just pink. It’s an entire spectrum of colours and everyone’s diagnosis and journey is unique. I think it’s so important that patients know and educate themselves about the reality of a breast cancer diagnosis so they can be empowered to make informed decisions about their health”
Having worked in medical research for over 30 years, Siobhan was well aware of the signs and symptoms but didn’t feel any lump in her breast before being diagnosed with breast cancer on the 22nd of May 2019. Having noticed that her nipple was sinking inward, and knowing that she was due to have a mammogram through BreastCheck as she had turned 50 the year previous, Siobhan wasn’t too worried.
“I probably left it slightly later than I should have done. I eventually did go to the GP and they sent me on to the rapid referral centre in the Mater for an immediate mammogram.”
Having worked in the field of cancer clinical research, when the team at the Mater breast clinic scheduled Siobhan in for a follow up scan, she knew her results had been unusual.
“I was in getting my scan and I said to the radiologist quite matter of factly, ‘look, I work in cancer research. I’m aware that an ultrasound means something suspicious is going on. If it’s cancer, I would much prefer to know today, but I won’t hold you to anything.”
Siobhan’s consultant turned the ultrasound screen around to face her and asked what she saw. Looking at the result, Siobhan knew she had breast cancer, a diagnosis which was confirmed from the biopsies taken that day.
“My type of cancer was oestrogen and progesterone positive, but before this was known I just remember thinking ‘please may I be hormone positive as I understood the outcomes of this subtype of breast cancer were relatively good. My understanding of my diagnosis hugely helped me navigate my treatment because I broadly knew what to expect, and how I could prepare myself in advance.”
Despite the large size of Siobhan’s tumour, which was buried within her breast tissue, she was able to successfully have a lumpectomy with lymph node excision on the 7th of June.
“Waiting for my tumour to be further typed and categorised was probably the most difficult part of my whole cancer experience. I was warned that I was going to feel awful after my surgery, and I did, but the waiting and not knowing, for me, was the hardest thing to do. I was fully aware that the information this test provided would dictate the next course of treatments required.”
When her results came back two weeks after her surgery, Siobhan was told that due to the fact that she was pre-menopausal and her results were borderline, the best pathway was not clear-cut, and she was given the decision on whether or not she would like to go ahead with chemotherapy or not. “I felt fully involved in my own cancer treatment decisions and that really helped to deal with all the side effects along the way”
“Because of my background, I was able to contextualise treatment and diagnosis and weigh up the pros and cons, which I was very grateful for. I decided to go for the chemo to give myself the optimal chance over the longer term and simply because, I wanted to be around for my family.”
From the beginning of her journey, Siobhan made sure that her children, aged 15, 14 and 10 at the time, knew the general idea of what was to come – she had been diagnosed with cancer, she was getting treatment for it, and she was going to be fine.
“My son was keen to get involved and as I knew my hair was going to start falling out at week three or four of chemo, I let my son shave my head. I wanted to turn a pretty awful experience into something positive and we giggled our way through the haircut. ”
Siobhan finished her chemo sessions in October 2019, and then went on to have 20 round of radiotherapy, which she completed, having her last session on Christmas Eve 2019.
With all the research and preparation, she had done, cancer treatment still threw Siobhan for a loop and today, eight months on, she can still feel the residual effects of cancer treatment.
“You think you know things, but you don’t really know anything until you’ve gone through it yourself. I think it’s easy to see breast cancer as this pink thing that you go through, come out the other side of and then you’re fine again. For a lot of people, that just simply isn’t the case.”
“A breast cancer journey is so much more than pink. People don’t realise that there are so many different forms of breast cancer, each person’s experience is unique and that a cancer journey doesn’t just end because you finish treatment. If I were to make people aware of anything it would be that.”
Siobhan was able to stay working part time all the way through her cancer journey as it gave her “a reason to get up in the morning”, and due to extended periods of time at home due to COVID-19, has now been able to resume work full time.
“I was never terrified. Even from the moment I was diagnosed, I saw it as okay, this is what’s happening, I’ll do my research, make a plan and tackle it that way. Knowledge is how I made it through, and it’s so important to get to know the signs and symptoms so that if it comes to it, you can seek help before it’s too late”.
To learn more about the signs and symptoms of breast cancer, and how you can effectively carry out your own breast checks each month, visit www.mariekeating.ie