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22nd Oct 2012

The Big Interview: Talks to Breast Cancer Survivor Alison McCormack

As part of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, we spoke to Alison McCormack who was diagnosed with breast cancer two years ago...

At the beginning of 2010 Alison McCormack was a normal 35-year-old but by the end of the year her she was diagnosed with breast cancer. spoke to her about her experience which stems back to the summer of 2010: “It was in July 2010 and I actually felt a hardness in the right breast. I had a one-year-old daughter so I was just in bed having a rest and just whatever way I was lying, I felt it. It wasn’t a lump, it was just a hardness in the right breast so I knew straight away I need to go and get this checked out.

“I went to the GP within about a week and he examined it. To be honest I wasn’t happy with how I was dealt with by the GP because he only examined one breast when I found out later he should have examined both. He only examined the breast where I had found the hardness and I’m not a person who worries and because I was only finished breast-feeding I thought it might be mastitis.

“He said it was nothing to worry about but sent off a referral for St James’ Breast Clinic which is standard for anyone presenting with any kind of a lump in their breast. He sent off the referral but because he wasn’t worried, he ticked the box that said I wasn’t urgent so I was waiting eight weeks before my appointment with the breast clinic.”

For the next eight weeks, Alison went on as normal: “I wasn’t worried because I knew that if it was breast cancer, I’d caught it early and I knew how things are now and you know you’re not going to die. And I thought if worst comes to worst I’ll just need chemo and I’ll deal with that. A mastectomy never entered my brain. During the eight weeks, I wasn’t worried. I wasn’t in any pain but as I got closer to the appointment which was on the 9th of September, I would say that two weeks prior to that I was getting pain in the breast.

“So I went into the appointment in the breast clinic in St James’ Hospital and immediately I was seen by the breast surgeon. When I went into her, she lay me down and did a breast examination on both breasts. Straight away, I knew by her face that she wasn’t happy with what she was finding. So it was ten to twelve and she said she wanted to get me over for an ultrasound. That department was supposed to close at 12 but she rang straight over. It was urgent so she squeezed me in. So little alarm bells started to ring but I’m not a worrier so I wasn’t going to worry until they told me I’ve got cancer.”

Alison was referred to the breast clinic in St James’ Hospital.

This moment kicked off a series of events that led to Alison’s cancer diagnosis: “They sent me over for the ultrasound and a mammogram all in the one day. They also did a needle aspiration where they get the needle and take a little bit of fluid out of the lumps. They did these all on one day.

“Later on that evening I was waiting for the results. My mum came with me. They called me in and I was going in on my own but there was a breast surgeon and a breast nurse, and my mum wanted to come in but I said no I’ll be grand, but as I was going into the surgeon’s office the nurse said bring your mum in so I knew then. So I said to the nurse this isn’t good news.

“So I went in, my mum with me, and they just sat me down. They didn’t say you’ve got breast cancer because they wanted to do a biopsy on the Friday but they indicated that they weren’t happy with what they had found. They wanted me to come back the following morning. My mum actually had cervical cancer so when we came out, she told me you have got cancer and they’re just not telling you until they put it under the microscope.”

“That was the Thursday evening. So they hadn’t actually used the words but they very strongly indicated that I had cancer. So I had to go back for the biopsy and I asked the radiographer had I got it or not but he said that he couldn’t say but that they would put it under the microscope and I would have to come back for the result on the Tuesday. On the Thursday night I went into denial. On the one hand I knew, but on the other had they hadn’t said it.”

That weekend was torment for Alison: “I was due to go back in the following Tuesday. But the whole weekend, from the Thursday to the Tuesday, I didn’t know whether I was going to die or not. I knew I had breast cancer but I didn’t know what type or what treatment I would have to get. That whole weekend was a horrible experience especially coming home and telling my partner and I have a one-year-old baby. I didn’t know whether I would see her growing up or not. It was just horrible, just sick.”

When she went back in on the Tuesday, she was told that she had ductal carcinoma which is a type of cancer of the milk ducts. She was also told what her treatment was going to be: “It wasn’t in a lump. It was in a splash so the only way to get rid of it, because it was a splash and covered a large area, I had to have a mastectomy. I was in bits when I heard that. I was devastated. I kept it together during the appointment but I was in bits.

“The only little bit of hope that I held on to was, with the cancer I had, they would be able to cut it out and, because it hadn’t spread and I hadn’t had chemotherapy, I would be a good candidate to have my reconstruction done at the same time as my mastectomy. This was great, this was my little lifeline because it would mean that I was going to wake up and still have something there.”

Alison met the criteria for having the mastectomy and reconstruction at the same time which was a relief for her: “Not all women meet the criteria. It depends on your breast size and lots of other different things so I didn’t know whether I would meet the criteria but luckily I did. So they explained then that I was going to go in on the 13th October and have the mastectomy and reconstruction. That was my lifeline to be honest with you, I think I’ve dealt with my cancer diagnosis very well and I think that’s partly why. I want to be very positive about the reconstruction. I’m not the same as I was and I’ll never be the same as I was but to look at me, I’m normal.”

In October, she went for the intricate operation: “The operation is horrible and there’s a lot of recovery. I had to have physiotherapy on my right arm for three months after because they took some muscle from my back for the reconstruction. It’s a long operation. I was afraid for my life and the only phrase I could relate to it was I was going in to get butchered.

“After the operation they had to keep me in a hot room for two days. It was unbearable. I was also on a morphine drip. I wasn’t in excruciating pain but I was very uncomfortable. They cut open my back and my front. For two days I wasn’t allowed to eat in case something went wrong and I had to go back into surgery. All I was allowed was a sip of water. I couldn’t reach my arm above my shoulder. For six months I couldn’t lift anything heavier than a kettle. My baby was almost two and I couldn’t lift her or set her on my lap. It was hard for me and hard for her. But the outcome is good now.”


Months after her mastectomy and reconstruction.

One of the things that helped Alison through everything was talking to other women who had gone through the same thing: “I rang the Irish Cancer Society and they do this thing called Reach To Recovery where you can speak to somebody who has gone through the same as yourself. So I rang and I managed to speak to a girl who was near enough the same age as me and got the same as me so she was able to tell me what to expect and things like that.

“Because my own mother had cervical cancer she had attended a cancer support place. She knew a woman who had had reconstruction. So when I met her that reassured me. She looked normal in her bra and v-necks. I look normal in my bra. It’s only when you take it off you can see that I still have no nipple but to the naked eye it looks great. So that’s what helped me. That’s why I want to tell my story because if there’s anyone out there who’s going through the same, they can look at me. I mean, I had my operation in October 2010 and by the summer of 2011 I was wearing vest tops and everything. So you can be kind of normal again.”

Alison did the right thing when she felt the hardness in her breast. She says that it is so important for women of all ages to check their breasts: “It is very important and I think especially for women of my age. I think a lot of women out there always think it’s older women who get breast cancer. Anyone I speak to they say you’re very young. I think it’s important to check and that women know their breast and know what to look for. It’s not just a lump, it can be a hardness or dimpling or discharge. It is important that women go to their GP if they are concerned and also that if they’re not happy with what they say, go to a different GP. Get it checked out.”

It’s been two years since Alison was diagnosed with breast cancer. Now she is looking fabulous and enjoying time with her partner James and daughter Hannah.

Alison with her young daughter Hannah enjoying the sun.

Remember, it is important that your regularly check your breasts for any changes and that if you are concerned about anything, to contact your GP immediately.