AROUND 1,000 women in Northern Ireland are diagnosed with breast cancer each year. As part of the Cancer Focus Think Pink! breast cancer awareness campaign, Amanda Jess, from Lisburn, shares her personal experiences.
Amanda (45), a medical secretary at Belfast City Hospital, was absolutely shattered when she was told she had breast cancer in the spring of 2010.
“I was left reeling when I got the news,” explained Amanda. “I never thought for a minute it would happen to me.
“I was visiting my cousin in Scotland when I noticed a lump in my breast. I was convinced it was a muscular problem and it wasn’t until I went to my GP about something else that I mentioned it. She referred me to the breast clinic and I was seen on March 31, 2010.
“My diagnosis was such a shock, I couldn’t believe it. On April 9 I had a partial mastectomy at the Ulster Clinic. I had to go back for more surgery on 10th May to remove all of my lymph nodes, followed by six cycles of chemotherapy and radiotherapy for four months. I’m now taking the hormone therapy tamoxifen but I’m feeling good. I just take one day at a time.
“While I was at the hospital I saw some brochures for the Cancer Focus Lavender support group, which is specifically for women under 45 with breast cancer (I was 43 at diagnosis – so I just made it!). I found it so helpful to hear about other people’s experiences and to know I wasn’t alone.
“From there I got involved with other Cancer Focus services such as a residential weekend at Corrymeela last summer, which I loved. It was so good to meet other people and hear their stories – it made me appreciate that I wasn’t alone in this. So many people are affected by cancer.
“I’ve also visited the charity’s beauty therapist Fiona Barr for a Beauty for Life treatment, which was extremely relaxing. I had a facial and my make-up done and came out feeling fantastic. Fiona is so welcoming and puts you at your ease. Having a whole hour to yourself is brilliant – I really enjoyed it. I also got a bag of Clarins products which was an extra bonus.
“I have been on a couple of the walks which Cancer Focus organises for people who want to build up their strength, which are very enjoyable and are tailored to patients’ needs.
“My illness was a wake up call in some ways and I’m doing things I never thought I’d do. I’d always wanted to go horseriding and I’ve just completed a clear round of 14 jumps – it was so exhilarating.
“I’ve always liked art too. I can’t draw or paint at all, but that isn’t really what it is all about – anything can be art. It’s about putting your feelings down on paper. On different days I feel different things – at the start there was a lot of anger and some of my first pictures are in quite dark colours. There was fear too, that the cancer would recur.
“I find the art really relaxing and afterward I feel so refreshed. Cancer Focus’s art therapist Joanne is just lovely - you simply go along and do what you feel like doing. I’ve taken part in the creative writing therapy course – I’ve always had a notion I’d like to try my hand at short story writing - you never know, I might be published some day!
“I’ve also started art journaling therapy, which I love. I have finished one journal and have started my second. They document my thoughts and emotions. If I’m feeling sad or anxious about something I’ll note it down. It’s like talking to someone. I do day to day – days out with friends and things like that. It’s easier to express yourself on paper and your problems somehow don’t seem so bad. You ask yourself, what were you really so worried about?
“Alongside I add in pictures I have drawn or collected, which is very calming. Reading over it later on reminds me how much I have to be thankful for and how far I’ve come.
“I think it’s wonderful that there is a charity like Cancer Focus which helps cancer patients get their lives together again after such a tough time. I’ve done so many things with the charity – I’ve made some good friends and I think I’ve become a stronger person.
“I’ve also had a strong faith to see me though and I’m grateful to God for His help, and trust Him with the future.
“There have been leaps and bounds in the improvements in cancer treatments. People do get over it have a good quality of life – a cancer diagnosis is not the end.
“My advice to others in the same boat would be try to stay calm – the support people get from family and friends is fantastic – a lot of good comes out of it. You don’t always appreciate your family circle and friends until something like this happens and you get great strength from them.
“My outlook now is that I have put cancer behind me and I’m moving on.”
Cancer Focus (the new name for the Ulster Cancer Foundation) encourages all women between 50–70 years of age to attend their breast screening appointment when called. Almost one third of women discover they have breast cancer through the breast screening service, yet out of every 100 local women called for screening, only 75 take up the invitation.
If you are concerned about breast cancer or want to talk to someone about signs and symptoms, call the Cancer Focus information and support helpline – 0800 783 3339 (Monday – Friday, 9am–1pm).
Cancer Focus’s free services include counselling, bra-fitting service, art therapy, creative writing, walking service, family support, Zest for Life and Beauty for Life. If you’d like to help raise cash to fund their vital services, please email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 028 9066 3281. For more information click on www.cancerfocusni.org