Claire, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2015, has two sons, Charlie (11) and Jamie (6). Her boys were only 18 months and six at the time she was diagnosed.
Telling her story Claire said: “I was feeling well and had recently been for a mammogram, so when I found a lump on my breast I wasn’t overly worried and neither was my GP. He referred me to a consultant, who again wasn’t unduly concerned but referred me for tests.
I attended the breast clinic at Antrim Area Hospital where I was examined and had a biopsy. When I was called in for my results, the consultant was flanked by a second and there were two nurses. I thought oh no, this is bad news. I went in on my own but when they asked me if anyone was with me, I knew then I had cancer.
I was overwhelmed. You want life to stop, to pedal backwards. You hear voices and a lot of information is thrown at you but you don’t take it in.
I had an MRI, CT and bone scan. It was a very difficult time as I knew they were checking to see if the cancer was anywhere else in my body. You feel fear. The results come in and you almost celebrate that you ‘only’ have breast cancer. You think…I can deal with this. My immediate reaction was how do I protect my kids from this? You wonder if you’ll see them grow up.
I had a lumpectomy and my lymph nodes were removed and I felt fine. After a lovely Christmas with my family I started chemotherapy – eight sessions every three weeks. It lasted five months until the end of May 2016, which was really tough. I then had three weeks of radiotherapy.
Coping with treatment
Chemo ripped me apart and I suffered immense fatigue. I was so exhausted I would be literally lying on the floor. It’s so difficult when you have children but it is also the reason you fight on. I think if I hadn’t had the kids, cancer would have brought me to a much lower place. They depended on me so it really kept me going. You start to cherish the mundane things in life like cooking fish fingers, that is putting them in the oven!
Losing my hair was one of the least significant parts for me. Cancer took a year out of my life. But I got the boys up every morning and out to school. And there were days when I literally crawled back to bed.
Handing over the care of your children is so hard but you have too. You just aren’t fit enough for everything. Jamie started to call my mother-in-law mummy as he saw her more than me. I found it very upsetting.
I had been running before my diagnosis and had been feeling fit and well. Towards the end of chemo, I wanted to start doing gentle movement again. I tried to do a short walk every day during chemo as I had read that it would help fight fatigue and support my mental health. It really helped to keep me in the right frame of mind.
A release through art
I also heard about Cancer Focus NI art therapy. I’d never heard of it before but I was open to giving it a go. I really felt I needed something to support my mental health. It was so important for me to get external support, outside of my friends and family at that critical time in my life. There is only so much leaning you can do on those closest to you.
Cancer Focus NI’s art therapist Joanne was great. She reassured me not to worry about what we would paint or do but that we’d work it out when I arrived. The first week I tried watercolour which was very calming. Then I painted, did crafts and worked with clay and talked to Joanne. There have been tears but also laughter and it’s great fun.
When you are having chemo, life is continuing all around you but when you come to art therapy you have one hour of space for you. You can take the time to slow it all down. It’s like a peacefulness and escapism. And it was great fun too.
It’s not like when you paint with the kids because you think of the mess and having to clear up, but to just be free and enjoy what you’re doing is great. I didn’t create any masterpieces but they were very precious to me. Some look ridiculous, childlike but others are peaceful and tranquil. One day I was working with clay….bashing it. I was really working with it and getting quite physical. It almost felt like I was running again. I felt alive.
It was a freedom, no restrictions whereas the outside world was so restrictive to me. It was liberating. I remembered who I was. Cancer stops you living. It stops you socialising as your immune system is low and you don’t want to mix. Art therapy gave me a release and became a coping strategy.
Since getting breast cancer, I’ve come on in leaps and bounds, I’m back to running, and at the moment I’m caravanning on the north coast with my wonderful family.
I know how crucial early detection is. Women need to check their breasts regularly to get to ‘know their normal’. We need to keep an eye out for anything we feel is not quite right – some of
the signs include a lump in breast area, puckered skin, thickening, a rash, oozing or crusting. Early detection means better survival rates, so it’s essential that women get this information.
I also think it’s an excellent idea to have support groups for younger women. Sometimes young women think they aren’t at risk simply because they are young or because there’s no history in their family, so it can be an even greater shock for them if they are diagnosed.
It’s a place where you can get expert advice on different issues such as infertility or relationships, where you can meet other women going through the same as you and to help you feel positive and upbeat.
These women are at an age when they may have been considering big life changes such as marriage and starting a family and suddenly finding themselves facing cancer. I had my children through IVF, so I can imagine the heartache of young women who want babies but have to battle through cancer first.
I’ll be having a girls’ night in in my caravan and I want to thank everyone who holds a charity fundraiser for such a good cause – you are really helping to make a difference.”