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Dublin: 18 °C Friday 7 August, 2020

'Every day is a gift, that's why it's called the present': One woman on her 18-year cancer journey

Brigid O’Sullivan realised she was pregnant shortly after her first diagnosis.

Brigid with her partner, John.
Brigid with her partner, John.

‘I’M THE EXCEPTION to the rule – most people get breast cancer and they don’t ever get cancer again’. 

Brigid O’Sullivan, who was first diagnosed with cancer 18 years ago, has now been treated for cancer in three different parts of her body – with a nine-year period of remission in between.

During her first round of treatment, age 41, she discovered she was pregnant with her third son Jack. He’s now in fifth year and ‘perfect’, says Brigid. She has lived ‘very well’ since then, seeing her three sons grow up, travelling and saying yes to whatever she can. She says she’s always been a ‘glass half-full’ kind of person.

We’re now less than a month out from Cups Against Breast Cancer - an Irish Cancer Society appeal to the public to hold a coffee morning on October 11. It’s all to raise much-needed funds for people affected by breast cancer just like Brigid.

Here, the mum of three shares her story of diagnosis, treatment and the incredible support she got along the way.

About 18 years ago, I was on holidays putting suncream on when I realised that there was a dent on my breast at the line it joined to my chest. I came home and went straight to the GP. I was sent to Tallaght Hospital’s breast cancer clinic was diagnosed in one day.

If you’re worried about a lump you’ve found, it’s so important not to put your head in the sand about it. You need to say, ‘right, let’s get this checked’. Yes, worst case scenario, it is breast cancer but hopefully you are catching it early – it’s so important. 

I was shocked but they told me they had caught it early and things looked good. I was only 41 at the time. I had a lumpectomy and radiotherapy but just before I started my treatment, I discovered I was pregnant with my third son Jack. He was born ten weeks early but he was perfect.

Managing my prognosis with a pregnancy

I started my treatment 17 weeks into my pregnancy and Jack got me through it, I was so busy worrying about him that the radiotherapy just flew by. He’s a strapping lad now who’s 6 foot and in fifth year. He’s the love of my life, along with my other two. My middle son has gotten married and has two girls, while my eldest has bought our old house in Roscommon and is due to get married – I’ve seen all these things happen.

One of the first times I had oncology treatment and they put the needle in my arm that was very emotional. All I could think about was the baby and how I was supposed to be protecting him, not putting these chemicals in him. The team were so knowledgeable and they reassured me no end – my doctor had had other patients that were pregnant before me, and reminded me that I wasn’t the first and I wouldn’t be the last.

There’s an age gap with my youngest and my oldest two, so I had a son doing the Junior Cert during my first treatment, and the other was doing the Leaving Cert. I was always very honest with them that we caught it early and I was going to be fine but wouldn’t always have a lot energy. I didn’t let it affect their lives. Both of them have turned into lovely people, have travelled and have met their partner. 

Focusing on the present

After that time I went into remission for about nine years, but seven years ago the cancer came back and reactivated in my hip and then my lungs. The one thing that I took away from my first experience of cancer 18 years ago was what my counsellor said: “The past is history, the future is a mystery, today is a gift – that’s why it’s called the present.”

That’s what got me through then and even now – I say yes to everything. I don’t want to frighten people with my story – many people get breast cancer and never have to deal with it again. It’s very treatable and there are plenty of services that will help you through including free counselling.

There’s new research coming out all the time, particularly thanks to funding from the Irish Cancer Society. And there are new drugs coming out every couple of months – that’s what keeps me going. The drugs I’m on now wouldn’t have even been thought about back when I was diagnosed.

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‘You have to go through it – you can’t go around it’

For the cancer I currently have, I’ve had radiotherapy and chemotherapy and I’m starting another course of radiotherapy today to shrink it. I’ll go everyday for 10 days but have a break at the weekends. The chemo can be tough – the last time I lost my hair but I got two free wigs. I rarely wore them, I just thought – this is me. That was my way of dealing with it.

I’m a glass half-full person but not everyone is born like that and not everyone can deal with it as easily as I did. An awful lot of people find it extremely tough when you lose your hair and my heart goes out to anyone that struggles. But you can’t change it – you have to go through it, you can’t go around it. If you’re finding it tough, there are great resources – the Irish Cancer Society’s website is fantastic, and has lots of information on the support available.

I get brilliant support – I get phone calls whenever I’m going for scans and lots of messages that say ‘I’m thinking of you today’. It makes you realise the important people in your life are there for you through thick and thin. My family are very supportive and my sister comes up to see me. When Jack was young, she’d stay the night so she’d be there in the morning for him, just a really practical way to help. I’m very lucky.

If you’re trying to help a loved one with their cancer, just be there for them. Try to listen – they mightn’t be ready to talk and they might not want to. Don’t crowd them, it can be overwhelming. Think before you speak – it sounds obvious, but don’t tell them about a person you know who had it and died. If they just want to sit and be quiet, go for a walk or go to the cinema – it’s great to get lost in something. Most of all, be gentle.

IMG_20190727_145207_resized_20190925_101052877 Brigid at the beach with her youngest son, Jack Source: Brigid O'Sullivan

Want to do what you can to help people like Brigid when they really need it? The Irish Cancer Society’s Cups Against Breast Cancer campaign raises much-needed funds for people affected by breast cancer. Get your cups out for a good cause on Friday, October 11th. Find out how you can host a coffee morning in your communityworkplace or office or check some other event ideas here.

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