Noleen's Full Story
I lived at home with my brother, sister and mummy and was working part time, doing all the normal things teenagers do. I decided at 17 not to complete my A Levels and opted for an NVQ in Belfast Institute - I loved it. By the time I finished that I had started working full time in Iceland, got promoted to Customer Service supervisor and bought my own car - I was enjoyed living life to the full. I loved going out socialising, going on holiday etc. In July 1999 I went to work in a Mace convenience store and in November 2000 my boss acquired two more shops, I was delighted as I was asked to manage them all. In the beginning it was great but after a while I started to feel tired all the time and felt like all I did was work and sleep.
I noticed one day that I had a lump in my right breast. Although it played on my mind for a while, I put it to the back of my mind and buried my head in work. After a few months the lump was getting bigger. I showed it to a girl who I was close to in work and she said not to worry it was probably only a cyst she said no way could it be cancer as I was only 22. So although I was worried every day I didn’t go to the doctors. I think at this stage I was in denial and like many young girls didn’t go to doctors because of the embarrassment of taking my clothes off.
I continued working away and as the months went by I continued to get even more tired but blamed it on the long hours that I was doing at the time. I had confided in a few other people and again everyone thought I was being ridiculous as I was too young to have cancer. Deep down I knew that something was wrong and that when I would go to the doctors it would be worse than everyone was telling me it would be.
August 2001 came and at this stage the lump was causing my breast to lose its shape. I wore a suit to work so I could hide under that but when I was wearing a t-shirt it was extremely noticeable. I knew I had to do something about it so I made an appointment to see the nurse. It was Monday 16th September 2001, a day I will never forget. She examined me and said she had to send me to the doctor. At this stage I was distraught with worry. My doctor examined me and asked me if I had told any of my family about the lump and I said no. She said she had to send me to the Breast Clinic. She told me to go home and tell my family about the lump.
I went to my friend’s house and told her she said it would take 2 or 3 weeks for an appointment and not to worry but I knew that something was wrong. I told my sister who was 20 at the time and my other friends and work colleagues. The person I didn’t tell was my mummy because I didn’t want her to worry. A couple of days later I got an appointment to go the hospital the next day, Thursday 20th September 2001. I went to work and I broke down into tears when I got there, it had finally hit me that I may have Cancer.
I went home and continued to act like it was a normal day - I still didn’t tell my mummy. She had brought us up on her own and for the first time she had planned a holiday with a friend. She was so excited that I couldn’t tell her because she wouldn’t go. I had to get my head around it all first but also I wanted my mummy to go on that holiday as she was going to have to face all this when she got back. Some people were against me doing this but I knew in my heart it was the right thing to do.
My sister and I went to the hospital on Friday and the consultant talked us through everything. I had to have more scans to make sure the cancer hadn’t spread - fortunately they had come back clear. At this stage I was treating the news like I was told I had an infection that would go away. My consultant was amazing she made us feel like we weren’t on our own and that she was going to see me through this, I was then referred to an oncologist.
My mummy went on her holiday and had a great time. The bad news was that I couldn’t put off any longer telling her about the cancer as I was starting chemotherapy a week later. My lump was so big that the oncologist suggested that I have chemotherapy first to reduce the chance of the cancer spreading and also to try and reduce the lump before surgery.
In one month I was told I had breast cancer, that I had to have chemotherapy, that I would lose my hair within 3 weeks, that I had to have a mastectomy and because of all the treatment I may never have kids. It all happened so quickly that I don’t think I ever digested it all properly. I told my mummy and then my daddy. It was the worst thing I have ever had to do. My mummy didn’t take the news well at all I was more worried about her than myself. I finally brought her and my daddy to meet my oncologist and they were told all about the treatment plan etc.
I had curly shoulder length hair at the time. Because I knew I was going to lose my hair I went to my hairdresser and got her to cut it shorter so that when my hair started falling out there wouldn’t be as much of it. I found that taking control of each situation helped me to get through it better. I went to the Gerard Lynch Centre and there was a hairdresser there who specialised in wigs so I got her to get me a wig that was the same style and colour as my own hair. Coming away from that appointment that day I was pleased my wig was lovely and I wasn’t afraid of my hair falling out as the replacement was just as good.
I started my chemotherapy and handled it really well. I was fine afterwards and didn’t get really sick as some people do. I still went to work during my treatment and many people who I spoke to on a daily basis didn’t notice that I was wearing a wig. Many people were shocked by the news that I was ill. The next hurdle I had to cross was that I didn’t tell my mummy that I had to have a mastectomy. I knew at the time that reconstructive surgery was an option that I was definitely going for so I didn’t really tell her the whole truth. I got away with it until the breast care nurse mentioned it one day when we went to see her. I thought oh no!!! We got outside and I had to tell her it all. How do you tell these things to the person who loves you the most in the whole world? I told her about the reconstruction and that put her mind at ease a bit.
During the first few weeks of chemotherapy I had a better social life than I did before. It was great my friends were taking me out for dinner, friends from school had been in touch and to be honest the cancer thing again was at the back of my mind as I was enjoying all the attention. I had planned a night out with one of my friends, I had bought new clothes and couldn’t wait to go out. My hair had been falling out at this stage so the planning of going out took my mind of it. I got into the shower and put shampoo on my hair and that was it. It stuck together I came out and my mummy and sister were there. You couldn’t even use a brush it was literally stuck to my head. All I could think of was oh my god I can’t go out!!
I was just about to phone my friend when this other person in my head said "what you worried for put a bandana on and go anyway"- so that’s what I did! The old me who would have worried about everything had developed all this courage, bravery and confidence from I don’t know where. From this night I wasn’t going to let Cancer beat me I was up for the fight and still intended to live my life.
I went through 6 cycles of Chemotherapy (FEC). My family took turns as to who would come with me it was great no one felt left out. My friend even came once. I was making sure everyone else was ok and this is what helped me through. At the end of February my chemotherapy had finished and I still felt okay. I didn’t have any major side effects for which I was glad. That was over so I had an appointment with the consultant for Breast Surgery. I was very anxious and again my wonderful sister came with me. The consultant was great I went in to see her terrified and my sister and I came out laughing. She showed me pictures of reconstruction I couldn’t believe it, it was amazing what was I worried for. She made me even more confident about the surgery and I wasn’t afraid at all.
It was Thursday 6th March 2002 and she said to me okay I will do it on Saturday 8th March 2002 - I had no time to think I was going in to hospital the next day. I went home to tell my mummy we all couldn’t believe it and no one had time to even worry about it. I for one wasn’t worried because I knew the outcome was going to be good. I had the operation and thankfully it had all went well. After only five days later I was allowed to go home, I had made an excellent recovery.
It didn’t last too long. A few weeks later I developed an infection, my immune system was so low from having the chemotherapy first that this was always a risk. I had to attend the hospital for several weeks and this put back my radiotherapy as I couldn’t have it while being treated for the infection and it wasn’t getting any better. My consultant gave me 2 days and if it didn’t clear up she would have to take some of the reconstructed breast away as she believed the infection was causing the damage. I thought of everything that had happened so far and this is when the old me was back, I cried so much and was devastated at the fact that I may have had to lose my breast again. Overnight it was a miracle - the infection was clearing and within a couple of days it was gone. I was overjoyed and couldn’t believe it, I got back on my feet and prepared myself for 5 weeks of radiotherapy - I was ready to win the battle again.
I got through the radiotherapy okay but it was very tiring as you had to go 5 days out of 7. Towards the end my breast was very red with the radiation but this healed in time using cream. I finished my radiotherapy on 15th July 2002 and in my eyes it was all over I had won and was proud of myself for being so strong and brave 95% of the time. I had only one thing on my mind and that was to go on holiday so Gavin and I booked a cruise. On the 3th August 2002 we went on holiday and I was back wearing my normal clothes and at the pool in my bikini.
I had all my check ups, 3 months, 6 months, yearly I was given tamoxifen to take for 5 years. Everything was really good I was doing well and I had put my cancer behind me. As I was aware that I may never have kids my partner and I chose to do respite and short term fostering. We chose to foster teenagers I had several kids come for alternate weekends it was great.
In June 2004 my sister, myself and a few friends went to see Westlife in concert. We weren’t sitting together and the security had come up to her, in a panic I ran across to see what was going on. It turned out she had won the competition and was going to be going on stage with them, it had always been her dream to meet them. We were all jumping around with excitement but I started having a stabbing pain in my back which continued the rest of the night.
The next day I was unable to go into work everyone was convinced I had pulled a muscle in my back, so it was a joke with everyone that my sister had got to meet westlife and that I had pulled a muscle in my back with excitement. This continued for 3 months and in August it became so bad that I couldn’t even walk upstairs so I went to casualty. They did an x-ray and blood tests and nothing showed up so I was sent home with pain killers. It eased for a while but the pains returned. I went to casualty again in December 2004 they checked my blood, did an x-ray as well as other tests and I was told I had a chest infection and was given antibiotics. The pains went away again but soon returned in January 2005, I went to my doctor, she was great I don’t know how I would have got through the last few years without her. She sent a letter to my oncologist who seen me the following week.
The day I went to my appointment I had no pains at all and was so embarrassed. As a precaution they did a CT scan and an MRI scan. I went to my doctors a couple of weeks later as I felt run down. She asked if I had got my results, I hadn’t so she phoned to get them. I knew by the conversation that something was wrong, this time I was unprepared for what was to follow. She told me the cancer had spread to my bone. I was so well educated about breast cancer from the computer, leaflets etc when I was diagnosed but had no idea what was ahead this time. I was looking forward to the future and then this happened.
Within a week I had met my oncologist and was starting treatment for the second time. In the beginning all the courage and confidence from the last time came back. I was ready for battle number two. While we thought my life was coming to an end my oncologist assured me that there were things he could do to kill the cancer off for a period of time. Throughout my whole experience I have commented many times that thankfully, I was blessed with all the right people to look after me and my oncologist was also great. He is an amazing man and I am privileged to be his patient. He was always straight with me and never gave me false hope.
I had radiotherapy and I started my chemotherapy, this time it was taxotere. I assumed that like last time I would be fine, but this wasn’t the case. I became very ill and ended up in hospital as my immune system was lowered to zero. The first time I don’t think it really hit me that I had cancer but this time I knew the reality. I was in hospital the last week of February 2005 and won’t forget it as it was my birthday. I had been on antibiotics for a few days and there was no change. On 26th February the day before my birthday they gave me a different drug and I started to get better so thankfully on my birthday I could sit up with a smile on my face.
While I was in hospital my hair started to fall out. I didn’t even have my home comforts. Like last time I had picked my wig and when I went to Belvoir Park Hospital for a scan I also went to the Gerard Lynch centre and had my hair shaved off there and then. So I left hospital with hair and returned that afternoon with my wig. That was that done. My chemotherapy dose had to be reduced as a result of my immune system being so low. When I got out of hospital I started having trouble with my leg. After numerous scans I was told I had muscle tears in my legs. It wasn’t serious and the doctors hoped that it would heal through time and I would have to take it easy.
In April 2005 I ended up back in hospital as I couldn’t walk on my leg. The blood from the tear had got infected and I had to have surgery to help it heal. I had to go to physiotherapy for several weeks to learn how to put my foot to the ground again. At this time I thought why me? What did I ever do to deserve this? I think I went through all the emotions that I should have had all along. The brave, courageous person was about to crumble. By the third chemotherapy session my veins had given up so I had to get a picc line in. A few weeks later however, I was back on my feet ready to face the world again. I had my picc line in and my last few chemo sessions went okay in comparison to the previous one.
It was the toughest challenge that I have ever had to face in my life. I got through it once again. I finished my chemotherapy in July 2005 and felt great. I started fostering again and one of the girls who I gave respite too didn’t go to anyone else while I was ill and she came back. She sent me a lovely card and I was nearly in tears as she wished me well. The cancer was forgotten I was looking forward to seeing her again and making a difference to her life even if it was only for a weekend.
I had another girl come for a week. I thought all my challenges were over. I still had my wig at this stage and didn’t mention anything when she stayed. I was asked for bobbles, hairdryer, straighteners etc and having no hair of course I didn’t have any of it! I was so stressed that when she left it was relief. A few days later I got a phone call asking for her to come back I thought oh no!!!! I promised myself I was going to tell her but couldn’t bring myself to do it.
Finally I did and all we could do was laugh because she had no idea. It is another experience that started off bad but ended up good. In November 2005 she came to live with Gavin and I permanently she is a great young girl and has made my life worthwhile. Having to tell her what I went through gave me an insight as to what mothers have to do when they are diagnosed with cancer.
For the 2 years or so I have had regular appointments and tests and everything was ok. In July 2007 I went for test results and unfortunately my cancer has returned again. I have had radiotherapy and my medication has changed to Aromasin. I was devastated each time it gets harder to deal with.
On Friday the 9th May I got the sad news that my cancer has returned for the 4th time. I look ok and feel ok and can't believe that it is back again so fight no 4 begins. I have already started my chemotherapy so will keep adding to this as the time goes by.
I do believe that everything happens for a reason as my life has taken a completely different path and I am now helping others which I thoroughly enjoy. The most important thing I have to do now is thank my family and friends for all their love and support and also Gavin who has been by my side through it all, without him I never would have got through all of this.
By writing this I hope to inspire women to fight from beginning to end and never give up. I haven’t and hopefully cancer will be good to me and give me a break for a while to promote awareness and raise lots of money to help others through fundraising and awareness through this website.