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Dublin: 13 °C Wednesday 23 October, 2019
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Opinion: I had a tumour growing in my breast but I also had a life growing inside me

How can these drugs rid me of cancer, take away my hair, blast my immune system and still allow this little life inside me to grow unharmed? writes Mary Canavan.

Mary Canavan

ONE MORNING IN early January last year, whilst getting ready for work, I felt a very obvious lump in my breast.

People often ask me how I felt at that moment. Did my blood run cold? Was I terrified? The answer is no, I wasn’t because I was sure that it wasn’t cancer, I was too young.  

I felt in some way protected because of my age. The youngest of five children, the ‘baby’ of the family – I couldn’t have cancer.

I was wrong.

I was 32 at the time and within two weeks of discovering the lump, I was diagnosed with breast cancer.  

While it was confirmed that I had a tumour growing in my right breast, I also had a life growing inside me. I was 9 weeks pregnant! 

The only word that comes slightly close to capturing how I felt is terror.

I was told that I would need immediate surgery, followed by 6 months of chemotherapy.

Incredibly, once I began chemotherapy after my first trimester, my baby would be safe throughout my treatment, they said. 

I struggled to believe that in the early days.

How can these drugs rid me of cancer, take away my hair, blast my immune system and yet allow this little life inside me to grow unharmed?

I armed myself with information. As a postdoctoral researcher in my career, information gathering was my speciality.

My husband and I met with consultants, counsellors, oncologists and women who had gone through cancer during pregnancy themselves.

The more information we gathered, the more I began to believe that maybe it was possible to treat my cancer and continue my pregnancy at the same time.

Feelings

Although surrounded by an incredible support network, at times I felt deeply alone. I was different, I was a cancer patient. Nobody wants that label. Even surrounded by other men and women undergoing treatment, with my growing baby bump – I was different.

Slowly, as those first few weeks passed though, my baby became a source of strength. If my body was capable of growing another life, then it was capable of getting through this treatment.

With each passing round of chemo, my baby was scanned and each week he grew bigger and stronger.

We lived week to week and never really allowed ourselves to think or hope of meeting him for the first time – we could only live in the present.

Of course, there were very difficult days, but there were some great ones too.

The moment myself and my husband saw our baby’s heartbeat for the first time, is a feeling that will stay with us forever.

In that instant, I did not feel like a cancer patient, I didn’t feel worried or frightened.

I felt excited and that we were like any other couple – staring in awe at a monitor and watching the flicker of our baby’s heartbeat.

Surrounding myself with friends and family helped enormously throughout this time because I was still Mary to them – I may have looked different, but they saw and continue to see more than just cancer.

Cancer had changed me and for a long time I wished I could go back and be the person I was before I was diagnosed.

Because once I was told I had cancer, a little piece of myself died. I couldn’t look at my life, my relationships, my goals the same way anymore.

Fear clouded everything and I was terrified that I could no longer have the future I had planned. And that’s the thing, we may read it a million times and it may never really sink in but if there is one thing I can say with absolute certainty it is this.

Life is a gift, it is precious and above all it is finite.

On 10 August 2018, we were rewarded with this precious gift- our beautiful baby boy Cillian made his way into this world.

He was healthy and strong with a mop of dark brown hair.

Moving on

Today, I have finished all my treatment. I am heading back to work and I have my husband and son by my side.

I am one of the lucky ones. Lucky that I found my lump at an early stage, lucky that my GP referred me to a breast clinic and that I was surrounded by so much love and support from family and friends.

I am grateful to so many people – the wonderful staff at the National Maternity Hospital, my nurses, who in truth became my friends and of course my doctors – for their compassion, skill and diligence.

I’m also thankful for support groups such as Breast Friends, ARC and Mummystar, and the Irish Cancer Society’s Cancer Nurseline a free helpline where you can talk to a Cancer Nurse about any worries or concerns. 

Using these supports helped me to realise that I am not the first person that this has happened to, I am not alone and that there is life after cancer. Many of these supports are reliant on Daffodil Day donations. 

Cancer has changed me in so many ways but it is only a chapter (albeit a big one!) in a larger story that has yet to be written.

Dr Mary Canavan is a research scientist at Trinity College Dublin, a mother and a cancer survivor. 

The Irish Cancer Society’s Daffodil Day, a crucial fundraiser for cancer research and free support services, takes place today, Friday, and is proudly supported by Boots Ireland.

To support cancer patients in Ireland please buy a pin from a local volunteer, your local Boots store, or donate at www.cancer.ie.

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About the author:

Mary Canavan

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