“It becomes clear throughout the haze of cancer treatment who and where your supports are.”
Aoife Gallaher’s breast cancer story began in 2011.
A nurse, wife, and mother to three young children, she presumed that her constant tiredness was an immediate result of her hectic lifestyle.
The Christmas prior she found herself exhausted, in and out of sleep, and spending as much time in bed as she possibly could.
“But I was a mother of three active children,” she says, “so I thought that this tiredness was normal.”
Writing towards the end of this year’s Breast Cancer Awareness Month, Aoife says that she first noticed that something could have been wrong when she found a small lump in her armpit.
It felt like a swollen gland, but she still asked her friend and colleague, Bernie, to take a look.
“Looking back it was quite comical the two of us in the small tea room,” she says. “Bernie with her latex gloves on examining this lump and the two of us reassuring ourselves that it had to be a swollen gland due to an underlying infection.”
When the lump didn’t go away, Aoife went to see her GP. She was told that she lump was an ingrown hair and that although her father might have been a carrier of the BRCA 1 mutation, she didn’t need to worry because “the BRCA gene mutation could not be carried through a paternal line.”
This turned out to be untrue, so Aoife decided to take the situation into her own hands and organise an appointment at a breast clinic.
It was there that doctors discovered a further two lumps in her breast. “Basically, I had breast cancer,” she says.
Aoife during this year’s Marie Keating Foundation Survive & Thrive fashion show
“My treatment consisted of a mastectomy and auxiliary clearance, followed by six months of chemotherapy which, I didn’t tolerate to well, this was every three weeks and then there was six weeks of radiotherapy, finishing on Christmas Eve 2011. I had a Mastectomy with no reconstruction.
“To be honest I don’t remember a lot about that period of time, certain things still resonate in my head like the sympathetic looks from people when I would walk my four year old daughter to school with my head scarf on.
“The insistence of people, usually that I actually didn’t even know, of having to tell me about their cancer or a person they knew who had cancer, or the neighbours cancer, always with a tragic outcome of course.”
Aoife says that she knows that if she had have taken her GP’s advice, she would have had to wait a number of months for an appointment. During this time, she had already been diagnosed, had surgery and commenced chemotherapy.
Aoife points to the support of her friends and family as paramount for her recovery and strength – both during treatment and afterwards.
“My husband was amazing in how he held our family together,” she says. “He worked and minded the kids who were four, five and seven at that time.”
“The whole experience of being diagnosed with cancer and getting through that and then realising that I had the BRCA 1 gene meant for us at the time that maybe our cancer story wasn’t going to end there.
“But I had survived and we decided to just get on with living our lives.
“It becomes clear throughout the haze of cancer treatment who and where your supports are (…) It’s true what they say, you really know who your friends are when the chips are down and a small number friends and family really helped us out in so many different ways.”
Aoife says that her parents, in particular, were a “force to be reckoned with and were there every step of the way.”
She says that both her mother and father helped her in a myriad of different ways – whether it was through attending every single chemo session, or encouraging positivity through quotes from John Lennon.
“I was tired and grumpy and at times (possibly a lot of times) directed this at my mother, who weathered that storm, and pretty much every other storm I have created over the years,” she says.
“She was also the one who minded the kids, fought my battles and fought alongside my husband in hospital corridors.
“My father to me always appeared calm and was constantly available for lifts to hospital, sometimes in the middle of the night, and at that time I felt like a child again because I was safe in his hands.”
Aoife hopes that by sharing her story, she can provide some comfort to others who may be experiencing the same thing.
“I don’t think it would give justice to this story saying that everything is great because I know there are men and woman who have a BRCA and or cancer story to tell and we all know that there are good days and bad days,” she says.
“Even now, eight years on, if I get a twinge in my back or a headache I immediately think… It’s back! I have worked very hard to remain positive and not allow the fear to consume me I really appreciate how lucky I am to be here to tell my story.”
The Marie Keating Foundation’s #GlamUpYourBra campaign, supported by Roche, is still running. It aims to raise awareness of breast cancer’s early signs and symptoms and promote the importance of self-checking. You can find out more about the campaign and how you can help here.
More information about The Marie Keating Foundation’s BRCA peer to peer support network, can be found here.