Yvonne Alderdice (43), from Bangor, is married to Dave and has three children, Zoe (13), Ross (12) and Ciara (10). She was diagnosed with breast cancer three years ago and since then has picked her life up again and even run the Dublin marathon.
She is a keen advocate of checking yourself for anything out of the ordinary. A mum herself, she says a support group for younger women with breast cancer would be invaluable.
“I was just 40 when I was diagnosed, and I had not met anyone who had breast cancer before.
I was meant to go to a 40th birthday but I’d had surgery just three days before. When the word got out, I asked all my friends to just do me one favour and check themselves or book a mammogram.
I first noticed a lump through my sports bra. I knew that most lumps are nothing to worry about but I went to the doctor who also thought there was nothing untoward. I went to the doctor twice more and the third time I was referred me to the breast clinic. I had a mammogram and ultrasound and was told there was nothing to worry about.
Then, about a week later, I got a letter asking me to come back. I thought it was a mistake and they had double booked me but the consultant wanted to see me again. Lucky for me he was unhappy with my results because further tests showed I had lobular breast cancer,
which doesn’t show up on a mammogram or ultrasound but does show up on an MRI. It was a biopsy on the day that confirmed the news.
I wasn’t in any pain and was as fit as a fiddle, I’d been training to do two half marathons, so it was completely out of the blue. The average age for a women to get this type of cancer is around 60, so it was very unusual.
I had a lumpectomy, chemotherapy and radiotherapy and began the daily medication to keep my hormones (the cancer trigger) at bay. Exactly a year later, January 2019, I noticed a discharge on my other breast which continued for months. It was only when I went to an after-care clinic at the Ulster Hospital that I realised that could be a symptom of breast cancer. But because I already had breast cancer I had stopped looking for it. I suppose I thought in some way I had become immune from it. I ended up going back to the breast clinic again and having more surgery in May 2019 when I had a milk duct and a benign papilloma removed.
Then, in July 2020, I was called back following my scheduled MRI scan – and again there wasn’t anything sinister – but the reality of getting the call to return to the breast clinic and go through the testing procedures again was extremely unsettling, I was petrified. You can never stop checking. If you don’t start checking now, and become familiar with what to look out for, you won’t know if there is something unusual. You don’t have to talk about it at the dinner table but do ask your daughters and sisters and friends to check themselves. The younger women start this, the more likely they are catch it early, it is really important that we normalise self-checks, it isn’t a big deal. Don’t be embarrassed to go to your doctor. As horrible as the treatment is, early diagnosis is everything.
The mental load
Looking back, I should have reached out for psychological support during my active treatment. I think that if you don’t talk to someone it just builds up and about a year down the line you implode. You should go for at least one counselling session to give yourself the chance to off-load some of your worries.
I don’t know why I didn’t, I suppose I was trying to be strong for the kids. Every decision I took was about how it would affect them. It was very difficult to tell them. I spoke to them one by one as soon as I had my treatment plan in place and I knew who would be looking after them and when. I wanted to be able to answer all their questions and I felt I was being honest and confident when I reassured them that everything was going to be fine.
My oncologist put off my treatment for a week so we could go on a holiday to France and it really helped to have that time together. Zoe is quite strong so took the news reasonably well and focused her energy on her AQE and then the P7 school production. Ross took my hair loss really badly and wanted me to wear a hat to hide it, especially when there were people around. (I didn’t like wearing a wig). Ciara did her best, but I feel she lost a year of school because she wasn’t with it at all, though her school were very understanding. My husband was remarkably strong. He travels for his job but stayed at home for six months while I had my treatment and looked after everything. I have no idea how he did it all. He did bottle up his feelings, though, and it was only when my friend got cancer later on that he realised what he had just come through himself.
My dad died of cancer and one of my neighbours with young children also passed away. But when I was sick I didn’t know any women my own age who had cancer and it was very isolating. I’m doing the best I can now to support my friend who has cancer. My kids take great pride in supporting her kids in every way they can, they hope that they can make things a little easier on them and ease their fears.
I think a support group for younger women is such a good idea with all the issues they may have planning a family, getting married or looking after children. By meeting up with women who have come through your challenge gives you hope and it’s great to have a safe place to acknowledge your fears and worries and hopefully have them eased.
If you do get breast cancer, you can recover from it and continue to chase your dreams, maybe in a little more determined way! You need to be kind to yourself though. The fatigue can stay with you months after your treatment is over. I was still taking an afternoon nap six months later, which took me by surprise. Your body need times to get over it, so don’t put pressure on yourself. I think it’s important to be positive, but it’s ok to be really sad too.
I love sport and friends and I raised £3k for Cancer Focus NI’s family support service by abseiling down the Europa Hotel in May 2018. Getting back my fitness has been massive. I ran the Dublin marathon last October, I’m doing Masters Swimming and I’ve just joined a running club.
I feel like I got lucky three times and I’m so happy to be here to give my support to Cancer Focus NI and all the wonderful work it does.
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.”