As part of the Cancer Focus Think Pink breast cancer awareness campaign during October, a Ballymena bank worker has shares her experiences with the disease in the hope it will prompt more women to ‘check up’ on their breasts.
Wilma Stewart who works for Northern Bank in the town has two grown-up children.
She says: “I decided to go for breast screening seven years ago because a friend of mine had been diagnosed with breast cancer and she encouraged all her friends to get a check up. Everything turned out to be fine.
“Two years later I went back for a second appointment. It was then that I got a letter referring me to Belfast City Hospital for a further screening. Although it was unexpected, I was oblivious to what it could mean. I had no symptoms so I thought everything would be all right.
“At the City they did more mammograms and I was told I had carcinoma in situ, which means that some cells are affected but it isn’t full-blown cancer. Next I had a puncture test and had to wait for a week for the results. When I went back I knew something was wrong because the breast cancer nurse was there. Sure enough, I was diagnosed with breast cancer.
“I was totally shell-shocked. You go through a whirlwind of emotions - you’re so worried about your family. It was a particularly bad time. My children were just 14 and 18 and my partner had been ill in June that year. He’d had three operations and lost four stone in weight. Then I was diagnosed in September.
“I was told what the treatment would involve and the doctors were optimistic as the lump they’d found was very small. The type of cancer I had was hormonally driven and it was the lowest grade which meant it wouldn’t have spread as quickly as other types.
“I was operated on at the Ulster Clinic when the lump was removed and the lymph nodes under my arm were tested. Thank goodness it hadn’t spread.
“It was decided that I only needed radiotherapy for five days a week for five weeks. I found that very tiring, particularly as I had to travel to Belfast for the treatment, but it had to be done.
“I was put on tamoxifen for five years and have a yearly mammogram – my most recent one a few weeks ago was all clear again, which I’m delighted about. It’s such a relief.
“I am so pleased that I went for screens when I did, otherwise the outcome could have been very different for me. A cancer diagnosis is a frightening experience and even now I still am frightened, but you can’t let it rule your life.
“One thing I would say to all women is that the earlier it is detected the better, so take up any screening options that come your way and see your doctor if you have any worries at all.”
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 Cancer Focus’s information and support helpline – 0800 783 3339 (Monday – Friday, 9am – 1pm).
Wilma adds, “I’m delighted that at Northern Bank we have selected Cancer Focus as our charity partner because it’s a cause very close to my heart. We all know someone who has been diagnosed or affected by cancer but until it happens in your own family you don’t realise the impact.
“Cancer Focus provides so many services to help people through this difficult time including counselling, support groups, Beauty for Life, art therapy and creative writing. At Northern Bank we are raising money specifically for the Family Support Service which helps children or young people when a parent or grandparent has been diagnosed with cancer.
“This free service provides a vital lifeline to children and families and helps them to talk about what is happening. The charity visits the families, organises support evenings and residential breaks for children to unwind and have fun. “When I was diagnosed with cancer, I guess in a way I was lucky in that my children were old enough to understand what was happening but many families are faced with explaining cancer to very young children. The Family Support Service is invaluable in helping to do this.”
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